Nuclear power capacity able to supply roughly 60 million homes is scheduled to close this decade as utilities struggle to replace northwest Europe’s ageing reactors, raising the risk of higher carbon emissions as fossil fuels plug the gap.
Nuclear power provides around a quarter of the European Union’s electricity generation, with 15 of the 27 nations hosting 107 reactors that provide total capacity of around 100 gigawatts (GW).
For Britain, which left the European Union at the end of January, nuclear provides around 20% of electricity, and the Conservative government has vaunted the energy form’s role in curbing global warming.
But 90 of Europe’s reactors are at least 31 years old as of December 2020, data from this year’s World Nuclear Industry Status Report showed. On average, they were designed to last 40 years.
Precise data on decommissioning is hard to obtain as plans can be revised as economics change. Consultancy Timera Energy says that by 2030, regulatory timetables show around 29 GW of nuclear closures in seven European countries (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain).
Assuming some plants will get extensions, Timera estimates around 21 GW of that capacity will be taken offline.
While an average nuclear plant has a capacity of around 1 GW, EDF Energy says its 1.2 GW British plants can each power more than 2 million homes. here
Although anti-nuclear campaigners say the process of building a nuclear plant is not carbon-free, nuclear energy does not produce direct carbon dioxide emissions and the huge volumes of baseload power atomic energy provide are hard to match elsewhere.
Graphic: Age of EU 27 Nuclear Fleet as of Dec 2020
Some operators are nevertheless bringing forward decommissioning plans as corrosion and deterioration of parts because of age increase the cost and difficulty of maintaining plants.
In addition, most reactor designs are not fitted with safety equipment to cope with 21st-century threats, such as terrorist attacks, extreme weather and plane crashes.
“The nuclear industry in Europe will face numerous challenges ahead as the volume of reactors entering into decommissioning is booming,” said Philippe Vié, global head of energy and utilities at Capgemini.
EDF Energy has announced accelerated plans to begin decommissioning its Hinkley Point B and Hunterson B plants in Britain in 2022.
Grid operators in both Britain and France, which gets around 70% of its electricity from nuclear, have warned of tight supply this winter, when electricity demand is usually at its highest.
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When faced with a deficit, Belgium, Britain, France and Germany rely on each other for power imports through interconnectors that link the countries.
Britain’s National Grid said in October that interconnector flows with Europe would not be affected by the country’s departure from the European Union, even if no exit deal can be agreed before the end of this year.
But even if it can be used to fend off a crisis, cross-border power sharing tends to create spikes in the market, which are passed on to the consumer.
To help counter that, Timera Energy says the seven European countries need to invest at least 25 billion euros ($30 billion) in flexible generation capacity, namely gas, by 2025 and 55 billion euros by 2030.
Those numbers will be much larger if other EU markets, gas plant closures and all nuclear closures scheduled are included, and renewable energy targets are missed, it added.
Gas plants are relatively easy to switch on and off and, unlike renewable power that depends on weather conditions, gas is not intermittent, but it produces emissions.
EDF’s website says its French nuclear output has reached around 301 terawatt hours (TWh) since the beginning of the year, down 13% year-on-year because of the COVID-19 crisis and extended outages, while UK output was down 11%. here
“We have lots of renewables being built but what we are likely to see, as nuclear plants close, is more volatility of supply,” said Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the UK Nuclear Industry Association.