The conversation around nuclear energy in Europe has shifted and its future now looks very bright, although there are still challenges to overcome, according to EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson. She called for policy-makers, industry and technology leaders to work together to turn opportunity into reality.
Opening the 15th European Nuclear Energy Forum, which was held in Prague from 10-11 November, Simson said the shift in the conversation on nuclear in Europe had become even more pronounced over the past year. “Today, I want to discuss what that new conversation looks like. The renewed potential of nuclear energy, the roadblocks standing in our way, and what needs to be done in the EU to remove them,” she said.
The first of those challenges is energy security, Simson said, with a number of EU Member States this year seeing either a partial or full reduction of energy supplies from Russia. The European Commission’s REPowerEU strategy – formally adopted in May – aims to reduce EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels and to diversify supplies while pursuing a clean energy model, while ensuring security of energy supply.
However, the Russian-designed reactors operating in five EU member states still have a “critical dependence” on Russia for their nuclear fuel supply, and many other member states rely on Russia for services such as conversion and enrichment, she said. EU countries with active Russian-designed reactors have been in discussions on “what can be done to licence alternative fuels that don’t compromise on energy security”, she said.
Next, Simson turned to climate – which she described as the broadest challenge.
“Nuclear power, being amongst the lowest greenhouse gas emitters throughout its entire life cycle, has to be part of the decarbonisation discussion,” she said. The EU is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, and while the “backbone” of the future European carbon-free power system will be “predominantly” renewables, the “reality” is that these will need to be complemented with a stable baseload electricity production, she added: “This is why nuclear energy is not just a safety and security concern, but also a real solution.
“Right now, nuclear power is the most prevalent low-carbon source providing the baseload we need for the stability of the electricity system. And in a year where security of supply issues have followed surging energy prices, we have seen how important is the availability of nuclear power.”
Modelling studies suggest that nuclear will need to have a share of roughly 15%-16% of EU electricity production in the “2030 and 2050 perspective”, she said.
The third challenge Simson considered was investment.
“I’ve laid out the ‘why’ when it comes to nuclear, something we can all agree on. But without the investment – the how – we won’t succeed in making nuclear fit for the future.
“Today the average age of the EU nuclear fleet is greater than 30 years. And our analysis shows that without immediate investment, around 90% of existing reactors would be shut down around the time when we need them most – in 2030.”
To maintain nuclear generation capacity at today’s levels by replacing retiring units with new reactors will need about EUR350-450 billion (USD361-464 billion) of investment, plus the investment of a further EUR45-50 billion in long-term operation of existing reactors, she said.
“All of this amounts to a hugely significant level of investment. And the cost of financing will play a key role in making nuclear energy production a competitive option,” she said.
“Right now there are three power reactor units under construction and close to commissioning. Five other ongoing projects for building six more units are underway. And in the coming decades, seven Member States have plans to build about 20 additional nuclear power reactor units in the EU.
“Public investment will only get us so far. But we are sending the right signals to mobilise and incentivise the private sector in the same endeavour.
“That’s why the EU taxonomy delegated act including nuclear activities is so important, and will enter into force in January. It will help our industry to upgrade safety and efficiency at sites and construct new reactors with the most advanced technologies.”
The potential of innovative nuclear technologies in an integrated energy system was the fourth challenge identified by Simson. As well as helping to improve grid stability and security of supply when coupled with other energy sources, including renewables, nuclear can also contribute to electrification, hydrogen production, and heat generation for buildings and industry, she said.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are an “important solution to integrate our energy system and decarbonise the sectors that pose the biggest challenge,” she said.
“Our aim is to have the first European SMRs to go live at the start of the next decade. Because of that, in Europe, demand for this new technology is on the rise. In a wide range of EU Member States there is interest in innovative solutions SMRs can offer,” she said. “I know that industry is responding to this emerging demand with several EU designs already under development.”
The EU is providing backing to this through its Horizon Europe research and innovation programme and is “closely following the stakeholders initiative” on the launch of the European SMR Partnership, she said.
“The nuclear energy industry and its related activities represent a high-tech industrial sector in the EU economy and a significant source of GDP, added value, employment, and exports. But the future prospects of the nuclear sector and its contribution to decarbonisation objectives cannot be taken for granted,” she added.
“We need readiness of all the actors in the EU nuclear sector – utilities, designers, equipment manufacturers, regulatory authorities – to face the forthcoming challenges and opportunities, and allow the nuclear sector’s sustained and material contribution.”
Founded in 2007, the annual European Nuclear Energy Forum takes place alternatively in Bratislava and Prague. They are open to everyone with an interest in nuclear energy, including EU governments, European institutions, such as the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee, representatives of the nuclear industry and regulators, electricity consumers and civil society.
The full text of Simson’s speech can be read here.
Source: World Nuclear News