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A new nuclear generation

Another step towards the phasing-out of nuclear power plants was expected when central European countries joined the EU. However, the new members may further boost an industry that is already experiencing something of a renaissance. NJ Watson reports

IT IS ONLY three months since the European Union (EU) welcomed eight central European countries into its fold. But already rows have erupted over nuclear power, as Austria confronted Slovakia and Bulgaria revived a controversial scheme to build a plant on the River Danube.

It had been expected—and hoped in many quarters—that new and aspiring EU members, many of which rely greatly on nuclear power, would follow most of the EU's established members in abandoning nuclear power. But the opposite may be true, because surging of oil prices, worries over energy security and the need to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

Slovakian spat

The latest spat occurred on 24 May, when Slovakia's economy minister, Pavol Rusko, called for the renovation of the 840 megawatt Mochovce nuclear power plant, rather than decommissioning it, as the government had promised during its accession negotiations with the European Commission. This drew protests from defiantly nuclear-free Austria and the Slovakian government immediately downplayed the comments.

This is not the first time Austria has found itself at loggerheads with its neighbours over nuclear power. Last year, the Czech Republic floated the idea of building a new reactor at Temelin, until Austria threatened to block its EU membership.

The European Commission was forced to make similar threats in June against Bulgaria, which hopes to join the EU in 2007, after it began to wobble on its commitment to close two reactors at its Kozloduy nuclear station, 200 km north of Sofia. The government has already decommissioned the plant's two oldest reactors and agreed to shut off two others by 2006 under the country's accession deal with the EU.

However, fears that the closures of the Kozloduy reactors, which supply Bulgaria with 45% of its electricity, would lead to power shortages prompted the government to rethink its commitment and to consider a previously abandoned plan to build a nuclear power plant at Belene, on the River Danube. According to the energy ministry, Bulgaria will need additional generating capacity of between 1 gigawatt (GW) and 2 GW by 2012, which means construction of the plant would need to begin now if the gap is to be filled domestically.

Table 1: Nuclear generation and reactors in western, central and eastern Europe, May 2004

 

Nuclear

% of

Operable

Under construction

Planned

Proposed

 

generation,

total

 

Capacity

 

Capacity

 

Capacity

 

Capacity

 

2002 (TWh)

output

Number

(GW)

Number

(GW)

Number

(GW)

Number

(GW)

Armenia

2.1

41

1

0.4

0

 

0

 

0

 

Belgium

44.7

57

7

5.7

0

 

0

 

0

 

Bulgaria

20.2

47

4

2.7

0

 

0

 

1

1.0

Czech Republic

18.7

25

6

3.5

0

 

0

 

2

1.9

Finland

21.4

30

4

2.7

0

 

1

1.6

0

 

France

415.5

78

59

63.5

0

 

0

 

0

 

Germany

162.3

30

18

20.6

0

 

0

 

0

 

Hungary

12.8

36

4

1.8

0

 

0

 

0

 

Lithuania

12.9

80

2

2.4

0

 

0

 

0

 

Netherlands

3.7

4

1

0.5

0

 

0

 

0

 

Romania

5.1

10

1

0.7

1

0.7

0

 

3

2.0

Russia

130

16

30

20.8

6

5.5

0

 

8

9.4

Slovakia

18

65

6

2.5

0

 

0

 

2

0.8

Slovenia

5.3

41

1

0.7

0

 

0

 

0

 

Spain

60.3

26

9

7.6

0

 

0

 

0

 

Sweden

65.6

46

11

9.4

0

 

0

 

0

 

Switzerland

25.7

40

5

3.2

0

 

0

 

0

 

Ukraine

73.4

46

13

11.3

2

1.9

0

 

0

 

UK

81.1

22

27

12

0

 

0

 

0

 

                     

Source: World Nuclear Association

Finishing first

Although these developments have alarmed the anti-nuclear lobby in Europe, they reflect a quiet, but growing confidence in the industry, which took off last year when Finland became the first European country in more than 10 years to approve plans to build a new nuclear plant.

Experts says Finland's decision to build the $3.6bn 1.6 GW plant was a huge boost to the industry, as it came from a country with strong democratic credentials and a good environmental record. It has already emboldened many of the pro-nuclear Central European countries, with the Czech prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, commenting on a recent visited to Helsinki that many other countries will join Finland's lead.

France, which has remained staunchly nuclear while all around it countries such as Belgium, Germany and Italy deserted the sector, has also announced that it is considering the European Pressurised Water Reactor, chosen by Finland, as a replacement for its existing nuclear reactors. And a poll published in Sweden, in April, found that 46% of Swedes support the maintenance of civil nuclear generation in Scandinavian countries.

These positive views are being backed by a reinvigorated nuclear industrial lobby, bolstered by a significant growth in business over the past decade as central European countries upgraded Soviet reactors to Western European safety standards. The European Commission made Euro0.838bn ($1.02bn) available between 1991 and 1998 to upgrade 35 Soviet-designed reactors in central and eastern Europe, and has since spent hundreds of millions more carrying out similar work in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.

Arguments in favour

Chief among the arguments used in favour of the nuclear industry is an issue close to Europe's heart: GHG emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the EU has an emissions-reduction target of 8% below 1990 levels. However, according to Foratom, the trade association for Europe's nuclear energy industry, without nuclear power, emissions from electricity production would rise by nearly 55%—equivalent to the emissions from about three-quarters of all cars in use in the EU.

'These signs of emerging arguments for nuclear power in Sweden and Switzerland come from the realisation that you can't cut GHG emissions and cut nuclear power at the same time,' says Jean-Marie Chevalier, director at Cambridge Energy Research Associates (Cera) and a professor at the Université Paris-Dauphine.

Other arguments put forward by the pro-nuclear lobby include worries over surging oil prices and the security of energy supplies. After a spate of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and continued instability in Iraq, oil prices rose to $42 a barrel in early June. And the decision by Finland to build a new nuclear reactor had as much to do with concerns about becoming dependent on Russia for energy imports as anything else.

Nevertheless, arguments against nuclear power still resonate with a public suspicious of this energy source since the serious accident at Ukraine's Chernobyl plant, in 1986, deposited radioactive particles across the continent.

The anti-nuclear lobby has made much of continuing worries over the safety of Central European plants. On 8 June, the European Commission said it will send a team of experts to the Temelin nuclear power plant, in the Czech Republic, following a leak of radioactive water there.

Anti-nuclear petition

Some 50 anti-nuclear organisations launched a petition for over a million signatures on 26 April, the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, to demand an end to the construction of new reactors, the drawing-up of a plan to phase out nuclear power in the EU, more investment in renewable energy sources and the repealing of the Euratom Treaty, which they claim has misguidedly helped fund the industry.

Since its inception, in 1957, Euratom has ploughed Euro55bn into research into nuclear generation, as well as lending hundreds of millions of euros to build and improve nuclear plants.

The issue of finance is a sensitive one for the industry, which admits the cost of nuclear power limits growth prospects, especially in a deregulated environment. Over the life of a reactor and taking into account waste management and decommissioning, electricity from nuclear generation is around 50% more expensive to produce than from either coal or gas.

Financing is also a major problem for the sector, as over 60% of the lifetime costs of a nuclear plant must be paid up front. Indeed, the ratings agency, Standard & Poor's (S&P), revised its outlook for Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO), the electricity utility building Finland's new reactor, from stable to negative after news of the project.

Over the years, the industry has benefited from enormous government subsidies, which are being investigated by the European Commission. Although the Commission is expected to approve the $9.1bn bail-out of British Energy, it ordered France to end state guarantees to Electricité de France (EdF) and told the firm to repay almost Euro1bn it had received in subsidies over the past decade. EdF is challenging the order.

'EdF has been living off the French state for longer than anyone can remember,' complains Mark Johnston, Friends of the Earth Europe's energy campaigner.

Notwithstanding S&P's worries over TVO, the consortium's inventive way of financing the Finnish reactor may represent a way forward for the nuclear industry.

Reduced risk

TVO is a private-public consortium of utilities and industrial firms, including many of the large pulp and paper mills, and was established to provide the shareholders with electricity at cost. These industrial firms have agreed to underwrite loans and to buy all the electricity produced by the new plant in advance, therefore, reducing a large amount of the risk in the project.

Cera's Chevalier says partnerships between energy and indust

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