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Nuclear power in the EU has fallen out of fashion

Nuclear is more prone to popularity peaks and troughs than many other energy sources, and it’s not looking good at the moment

THIRTY years after the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear power is still a core part of European energy generation. But questionable economics, insufficient state support and – in many countries – public hostility are likely to diminish its role in the coming years. Long construction times, safety risks, complex permitting and licensing procedures as well as significant clean-up costs add to the burden for developers.

For now, by virtue of historical momentum, nuclear power remains a fundamental element of the European energy mix. It accounts for more than a quarter of the EU’s electricity supply and a higher share of its baseload power capacity.

Half of the 28 EU states have nuclear reactors – a combined 119 gigawatts of electrical generation capacity (GWe), according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry organisation.

Compelling strategic arguments support an expansion of nuclear power. It offers a source of low-carbon, baseload supply. And it can enhance energy-supply security: although uranium must be imported, it can be stockpiled much more easily than natural gas or coal, reducing dependence on external markets.

By virtue of historical momentum, nuclear power remains a fundamental element of the European energy mix

But the outlook isn’t favourable: of the 14 EU states with nuclear capacity, Germany, which gets about 16% of its electricity from nuclear, is phasing out its reactors by 2022; and France is planning to reduce the share of nuclear power in its electricity mix over the next decade – from 75% now to 50% by 2025. France alone generates half of the EU’s nuclear electricity, so this would be a big step.

New projects are rare. Reactors are being built in only three EU member states – Finland, France and Slovakia, all of which have experienced serious cost overruns and delays. Proposals exist for other plants: projects in Finland, Hungary and the UK are in the licensing phase; ventures in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Romania are at an earlier stage. The UK intends to close all of its coal-fired power plants by 2025 and to fill the capacity gap mainly with new gas and nuclear power plants.

Yet between now and 2030, says the WNA, additions to nuclear capacity will be outweighed by closures. Some of those will happen for operational reasons, as plants reach the end of their productive life; the UK, for example, gets around a fifth of its electricity from 15 nuclear reactors, but almost half of this capacity will be retired by 2025. Politics is shutting other plants, like those in Germany. The economics of nuclear, which must also account for decommissioning and waste disposal, struggle to stack up in the face of preferential grid access for renewables.

“We don’t see a lot of nuclear investments in Europe,” says Tim Boersma, a fellow of the Brookings Institute, a think-tank. “Costs have increased dramatically and the nuclear industry faces several other major challenges.” These include “very significant cost” overruns at Areva’s projects in France and Finland and – in a number of countries – an absence of political support for new investments.

Maintaining uranium

Nonetheless, the European Commission still sees an important role for nuclear power in the EU. In April, in its most recent Nuclear Illustrative Program (Pinc) statement – which it is required to produce under the Euratom Treaty – the Commission forecasts a fall in nuclear generation to below 100 GWe by 2025. But it says the decline can be reversed by 2030, as new reactors are connected to the grid and as the lifetimes of others are extended. Between 2030 and 2050, it predicts, the use of nuclear energy will increase slightly, stabilising at 95-105 GWe by 2050. In the context of an expected increase in electricity demand over the same period, that would mean the share of nuclear in the EU’s electricity market falling from the present level, of 27%, to around 20%.

“Costs have increased dramatically and the nuclear industry faces several other major challenges”

Maintaining a nuclear generation capacity of this level to 2050 and beyond would need a lot more investment over the next 35 years. According to the Pinc document, between €350bn ($400bn) and €450bn would have to be invested in new plants to replace most of the existing capacity. Operating costs and spending on decommissioning and waste management would be extra.

The WNA argues that those figures are reasonable in the context of total estimated EU spending on energy supply in the next three and a half decades – between €3.2 trillion and €4.2 trillion is thought necessary to meet the EU’s objectives to 2050. Yet whatever the economic, strategic or environmental merits, opposition to nuclear energy post-Fukushima and three decades on from Chernobyl seems likely to prove the most persuasive – or dissuasive – force.

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