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28th May 2022

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Does Ukraine war mean a renaissance for nuclear in EU?

  • The PAKS nuclear power plant in Hungary. A new unit is being built by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy giant (Photo: MVM - Paks Nuclear Power Plant)
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As the EU ramps up efforts to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, the focus has shifted back towards nuclear energy — along with renewables — as an option.

Boosting nuclear energy capacity would also fit with the EU's Green Deal, with proponents of nuclear seeing it as a vital tool to reach net-zero targets. At the start of this year, the EU executive also proposed to classify some nuclear investments as green — a highly-controversial move.

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  • Checks by Ukrainian officials on radioactivity levels around the ruined Chernobyl nuclear power plant, after the Russian invasion (Photo: Energoatom)

Expanding reliance on nuclear energy is a deeply-divisive issue for many EU member states, however.

The EU Commission has been accused of greenwashing nuclear and natural gas by critics. The plan has also split member states, with Austria and Luxembourg being the most outspoken in opposing the plans.

Those countries in favour remain enthusiastic, however. "Nuclear energy should be considered as one of the solutions, because it has the lowest carbon-footprint [and is] already considered as a green solution by the European Commission," Bulgarian socialist MEP Tsvetelina Penkova told the European Parliament's energy committee in early March.

Her assessment was echoed by Finnish MEP Henna Virkkunen. "It is clear that member states can no longer rely on Russian gas and oil for their energy needs. Doubling down and investing in low-carbon energy, including nuclear and renewables, is now imperative in order to achieve both carbon neutrality and energy independence," she told the committee.

In a 10-point plan in March, the International Energy Agency (IEA) also suggested that the EU reduce its imports of natural gas from Russia by more than one-third within a year — partly by maximising energy production from nuclear power.

The IEA proposed that the EU temporarily delay the closure of nuclear reactors which were scheduled to shutdown over the next year, a move which could cut EU gas demand by almost 1bn cubic metres per month.

But such a massive shift requires equally massive investment.

EU commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton estimates the EU should invest around €500bn into nuclear energy by 2050 to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality.

Others warn that building new nuclear power plants will not be a quick fix for the EU as it struggles to wean itself off Russian energy amid a war that is pushing up already-high energy prices.

"Nuclear facilities [which are] already halted could be put back online, but that would only mean a minimum [of] gas savings. If you want to reduce the role of gas in the electricity sector, you must slow down the phasing-out of coal," András György Deák, senior research fellow at the Budapest-based Institute of World Economic, told EUobserver.

"I can imagine that a nuclear renaissance unfolds because of the war — at least, in terms of policy discussions. But what we start building today, will not be operational until 2035. So what is the point?," Deák said, adding that companies investing in building plants think long-term and are unlikely to react solely to the Ukraine war.

Deák is also sceptical that Europe can decrease its reliance on gas more quickly than already planned. Accelerating savings could come from speeding up the renovation of buildings, in order that some gas used for heating can be channeled into producing electricity, he suggests.

Small modular reactors (SMRs), nuclear-fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors, could also provide a quick bridge eventually, but the technology is still under development, and needs to be examined by the EU Commission for security reasons.

13 EU states, 109 reactors

In 2020, 13 EU countries had operational nuclear reactors: Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden. In total, there were 109 nuclear reactors in operation, according to the EU's statistics office.

Nuclear electricity production accounts for almost 25 percent of total EU electricity. But electricity generated by nuclear plants across the EU has decreased by 25.2 percent since 2006.

France is the EU state which is most reliant on nuclear electricity: nuclear energy represented 67 percent of all electricity produced in the country in 2020.

In Slovakia, nuclear represents 54 percent of all electricity generation, in Hungary 46 percent, and in Bulgaria 41 percent.

In Germany, where Angela Merkel made a commitment to phase-out nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011, the final three reactors are expected to stop production this year.

At the other end of the spectrum, Finland's new unit, built by a French-led consortium, came online in mid-March — but only after a 12-year delay, and billions of euros in extra costs.

Elina Brutschin, research scholar with the climate programme of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) said the massive policy shift in Germany: shutting down the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, and increasing defence spending, showed that "anything is possible at the moment."

"This [war] could motivate countries to prolong the lifetime of existing plants, and spur new investments in nuclear energy generally," Brutschin said, but added that decisions will vary widely, based on EU countries' national and political contexts.

Vincent Zabielski, a nuclear engineer-turned-lawyer at international law firm Pillsbury, thinks there can be a nuclear renaissance, citing a U-turn in Germany thinking in the last few weeks.

"Germany has some of the best nuclear plants in the world, as well as the best nuclear operators, and they are throwing it away," he warned, adding that any decision to revive nuclear power in Europe's energy mix will ultimately be a political choice.

And some politicians are far from convinced.

"No, I don't think there will be a nuclear renaissance, I don't count a possible extension of reactors as a 'renaissance'," Slovak MEP Martin Hojsík, one of the European lawmakers in charge of taxonomy, told EUobserver.

"It is just too costly, and takes too long compared to renewable energy," he said, pointing out that reactors in central Europe are also dependent on Russian fuel.

"Military conflict and nuclear plants don't mix well."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, War, Peace and the Green Economy, which you can now read in full online.
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Hungary's nuclear power plant expansion unnerves Austria

The Austrian report, finding the Paks site lies on a seismic fault line, adds to existing concerns over safety issues on the expansion of the nuclear plant - a project pushed by the government of prime minister Viktor Orbán.

War, Peace and the Green Economy

This magazine is about the world's collective and potentially transformational journey towards a green economy. It is also about taking the reader on what we hope is a fascinating "green voyage" across Europe, Africa and China.

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