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EU’s Simson calls for ‘gearshift’ in nuclear power investments

The EU’s energy commissioner, Kadri Simson, called for a “gearshift on investments” in nuclear power in order to extend the lifetime of existing power plants and maintain current production levels until 2050. EURACTIV France reports.

“The terms of the conversation around nuclear energy in Europe are changing,” according to the commissioner, who spoke on Tuesday (30 November) at the opening ceremony of the World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris.

This is due first to the climate emergency, which requires baseload low-carbon electricity to complement variable renewables, and technological developments such as small modular reactors, she explained.

But “the third area where developments are calling for a gearshifts is on investment,” she added.

“Today, the average age of the EU nuclear fleet exceeds 30 years. And according to our analysis, without immediate investments, around 90% of the existing reactors would be shut down around the time when they will be needed the most: in 2030,” she warned.

“Extending their lifetime, safely, requires between €45-50 billion,” Simson remarked. “And to keep roughly the same nuclear generation capacity as today more than ten member states are planning about €400 billion in investments for new capacity installed by 2050,” she added.

This is why “the cost of financing will play a key role in making nuclear energy production possible and competitive,” Simson continued, referring to the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

Debate has been raging in Brussels about whether to classify nuclear power as a “sustainable” or “transitional” activity under the EU’s green finance taxonomy, with opponents pointing to safety risks and issues with safe disposal of radioactive waste.

But supporters of atomic energy were bolstered by a report from the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in July, which concluded that nuclear power was safe and therefore eligible for a green label under the EU taxonomy.

After an EU summit in October, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU executive would soon table proposals on gas and nuclear as part of the bloc’s green finance rulebook.

And judging by Simson’s speech, things could soon look brighter for nuclear power in Europe.

The Commission’s proposal under the taxonomy “will be ready in the coming weeks”, she said. “And it will clarify whether or not nuclear energy generation, waste disposal or fuel supply can be classified as sustainable activities for investors.”

A windfall effect

Such a distinction, separating three types of activities related to nuclear, could prove useful in encouraging investors to commit to new projects.

Foratom, the trade association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe, saw it as a positive signal.

“Attention needs to be paid to becoming over reliant on variable renewables, because of their weather dependence,” said Jessica Johnson, communications director at Foratom, the European nuclear energy association. “This is why an ever increasing number of citizens and member states recognise that supporting low carbon, EU sources of reliable energy – primarily nuclear – is essential,” she told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

In her speech, Simson made similar remarks, pointing to the “challenges” of “moving towards a growing share of intermittent” energy production from wind and solar.

“There is a growing sense of realism about the need for complementing renewables with baseload electricity production. This leads to a renewed interest for nuclear energy as a part of the new energy future,” Simson said.

“The point is that right now, nuclear power is the most prevalent low-carbon source providing the baseload needed for the stability of the electricity grid. And also one that helps reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, contributing to energy stability and security,” she added.

In view of incentivising investments, the EU taxonomy proposal should be ready around 15 December, EURACTIV understands.

Future of nuclear uncertain in France post-2035

During her visit, the EU Commissioner also met with Jean-Bernard Levy, CEO of French electricity giant EDF, to discuss the role of nuclear power in the European energy system.

Other international organisations are starting to speak more favourably about nuclear. On the day of Simson’s speech (30 November), the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report on France’s energy policy, which warned about the decreasing share of nuclear power in France.

Under the French energy and climate law, 14 nuclear reactors are to be closed to reduce the share of nuclear in the electricity mix to 50% by 2035.

The IEA report recommended that the French government “review the conditions of the legislative obligation to limit the contribution of nuclear power to 50% of electricity production until 2035, in the light of the objectives of climate urgency, climate neutrality, affordability and the deployment of renewable energy.”

The IEA is also due to publish a report in May 2022 on the role of nuclear power in achieving the net-zero emissions objective.

“If the deployment of renewable energies and the associated flexibility needs do not accelerate quickly enough by prioritising execution and implementation, the objective of closing 14 nuclear reactors could be difficult to achieve while preserving capacity margins,” according to the IEA document, which also calls for “a timely decision on the role of nuclear beyond 2035”.

“By investing much more in energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear power, France can accelerate its progress towards its key energy and climate goals,” commented IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol.

Following the submission of the IEA report, French Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili said the document “confirms the orientations adopted by France”, namely “the reinforcement of energy efficiency, the development of renewable energies and the maintenance of a nuclear electricity base.”

“Energy security will be of fundamental importance during France’s transition to clean energy,” Pompili also stressed.