Time for a nuclear renaissance in Europe?11 October 2023
Europe’s energy policy has been undergoing a paradigm shift since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The most obvious change is the necessary replacement of Russian pipeline natural gas imports with liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, but a potentially more subtle, and arguably more important change, is a nuclear renaissance that is slowly developing and is supported by nuclear energy officially joining the list of “transitional” energies in the EU’s green taxonomy on 1 January 2023.
In April the long-delayed Olkiluoto 3 plant, Europe’s largest, finally commenced operations and will enable around 40% of Finland’s electricity demand to be met by nuclear power, which the government argues will both increase energy security and help achieve its carbon neutrality by displacing reliance on fossil fuel plants. In the same month, Germany finally closed its last three reactors with their decommissioning having delayed by three months to ensure winter supply security in the aftermath of the Nord Steam closure. Somewhat ironically, Germany’s lost capacity owing to these closures has been replaced by French imports sourced from nuclear power.
And in September the Italian government said it wants to reintroduce nuclear power in the country, almost four decades after the Italian nuclear programme that started in the 1960s but came to a sudden halt (after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union) with Italians voting overwhelmingly in referenda in 1987and 2011 against further nuclear development. Italy’s government optimistically hopes that the first nuclear energy production in Italy could happen within a decade, which is unrealistic, but the optimism reflects a growing acceptance that carbon neutrality and energy security are best provided by nuclear power.
France has reversed its previous energy policy of reducing the nuclear share of energy to 50%, and is now planning to build six new reactors, and is extending the operational lifetime of its aged nuclear fleet that has been subject to corrosion problems. And in the UK the government has set a target for nuclear energy to generate 24 GW of power by 2050, which is three times more than the current capacity and would provide up to 25% of projected electricity demand. The UK government is also targeting production of the first Small Modular Reactor (SMR) by 2030.
Europe’s antipathy to nuclear power has been fuelled by incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, although there have been only two major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power, at Chernobyl, which involved an intense fire without provision for containment, and Fukushima Daiichi, which tested the containment with some release of radioactivity. But there have been no major incidents at any of the EU’s reactors, which have operated with an impeccable safety record. Indeed, accidents at fossil fuel and even renewable plants have been more common. Put into context, there have only been two major accidents in over 18 500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 36 countries.
Europe’s nuclear rejection is mostly ideological and driven by the bloc’s growing pro-environment culture and weak political opportunism. German chancellor Merkel used the Fukushima incident to bring forward the country’s nuclear phase out and to endear herself to the county’s developing green movement. But to back an expansion in renewable generation, as part of the justification in phasing out nuclear, the government had to pay heavy subsidies to renewable developers that were recovered in escalating electricity tariffs. Keeping nuclear would have been a more affordable, secure, and arguably sustainable option given that wind farms have an average load factor below 40% and are balanced by gas-fired plant.
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent ending of direct Nord Stream gas flows to Germany, has taught us anything it is that import dependence presents a risk to energy security and affordability. Yet by blithely swapping Russian gas imports for LNG imports, and seeking to displace coal generation capacity with a mix of intermittent renewables and gas, Europe is not directly enhancing its supply security nor improving its energy affordability, given that new renewable capacity will need to be subsidised and the cost of new transmission capacity to limit renewable curtailment will also have to be recovered in tariffs.
Increasing the share of LNG in Europe’s supply mix to mostly displace Russian gas is not risk-averse. An outage at Freeport LNG last year and the current industrial action at Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG facilities in Australia have spiked gas prices while increasing Asia demand for LNG, which means that the TTF benchmark Europe gas price must be at a premium to the Asia JKM price to ensure Europe can attract spot LNG cargoes. A rising LNG dependence also increases the gas price correlation to oil-indexed LNG cargoes and reduces gas-on-gas competition.
Investing in new nuclear capacity would be a preferable energy strategy, from a supply security and decarbonisation perspective. It would enable the direct displacement of coal and would reduce the call on gas plant to balance intermittent renewable output. Investment in SMR’s would also reduce the time and cost involved.
The time is right for a full nuclear renaissance in Europe, but this will first require education to redress the ideological opposition that permeates Europe. Only Italy, France, and the UK have shown the nuclear political will. Now the European Commission should follow its inclusion of nuclear in the EU’s green taxonomy by committing its full support to the bloc’s development of new nuclear capacity.
Author: Jeremy Wilcox, managing director of the Energy Partnership, an independent Thailand-based energy and environment consulting firm