In Western Europe, nuclear energy is being hit by a political and ideological storm. The refusal to integrate it into the “green investment” label of the European taxonomy was yet another proof of Brussels’ unwillingness to continue the nuclear gamble, and rather prioritize hydrogen, offshore wind, and solar.
However, on February 5th, a study titled “Road to EU Climate Neutrality by 2050”, commissioned by the ECR and Renew fractions of the European Parliament, urged the Commission to reassess the role nuclear could play in the European energy transition and in the fulfillment of its ambitious climate goals. And while one quarter of EU electricity came from nuclear in 2018, this generation decreased by 16,7% since 2006, giving us a hint that the Old Continent is more than ever divided about nuclear power.
All quiet (for nuclear) on the Western Front
Germany will be the first to reach the nuclear finish line in 2022, and the same deadline is fixed for neighbor Belgium. Over the past decade, both countries implemented a massive subsidizing policy for renewable energy and decided to replace nuclear power with natural gas - a paradoxical choice considering that gas is much more carbon intensive than nuclear. But this winter cold snap led to lower solar and wind electricity production (Germany registered -72% for photovoltaic panels in January 2021). Germany was thus obliged to fill the gap by resorting, once again, to fossil fuels.
Despite its prominent role in nuclear energy, France has also been making assertive moves to put an end to its dependence on the atom. Lately, an IEA report commissioned by the French Ministry of Ecology cast serious doubts on the future of the nuclear sector in France, as it depicted a 100% scenario as “technically possible”.
Ageing reactors and increasing pressure from the Green wing, fueled by safety concerns, have led to the closure of the Fessenheim plant, and created controversy around the Bugey plant - one of the oldest in the country. This gradual phase-out makes it indispensable to deploy alternative sources of energy to properly meet the domestic demand and alters France’s export potential towards neighboring countries.
A scenario where all the European countries would exit nuclear power would undoubtedly threaten its energy security. That is why Eastern Europe adopts a contrasting stance to the one we observe in the West.
The East needs to nuclear to move from coal
In the midst of this nuclear-skepticism, countries like Hungary and Poland contemplate the option of nuclear energy to reduce their carbon emissions. In fact, members of the Visegrad group have spoken in unison about a common need to foster nuclear energy during a meeting held on February 10th. And what is more, they announced their intent to ask for funding from the European Union to implement those projects.
Poland has been repeatedly pointed at for its poor environmental record, with around 74% of electricity still coming from coal-fired power plants. However, under EU pressure, Poland decided to break the status quo and pledged last autumn to move away from coal, reducing its dependency to 56% in 2030. How will it proceed? By building at least six nuclear reactors at the horizon of 2040, with a cost estimated at $40 billion.
This is not the first attempt of Poland to embark on a nuclear adventure: already in 1980, the country started the construction of two reactors, but was halted in its enthusiasm by the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
One unknown variable still remains in that tricky equation: who will be the supplier of these reactors? Although Russian VVER technology prevails for now, Poland is torn between various options. The first spot is taken by the United States, as Poland signed a $18 billion deal to buy US nuclear technology. Japan is also in this race of potential suppliers, and a cooperation between the two countries in building high temperature gas-cooled reactors (HGTR) was recently announced.
France, finally, is also a strong contestant. Indeed, Eastern Europe represents a perfect market for the French Nuclear industry, which no longer seems to find demand at home. During a short trip to Poland in the beginning of February, French Minister of Trade Franck Riester was accompanied by EDF’s CEO to develop a framework of cooperation between France and Poland in the nuclear energy field.
The Czech Republic follows a similar path to its neighbor Poland, although it already boasted a nuclear capacity of 22 GW in 2018. The construction of its VVER reactors date back to the Soviet times, and time has now come to extend their operating lifetime. Just like Poland, the Czechs have discussed cooperation with Japan in 2020 on the potential construction of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) - a branch that is taking off in the industry today. The Russian option is also still on the table. It was especially appealing to the Czechs back in 2018, when the country had tough negotiations with Brussels on an exemption from government bidding rules for nuclear projects. And for its latest tender of the Dukovany plant, Russia is also among the contestants. Related: Oil Prices Soar As U.S. Oil Production Plunges 30%
Why don’t Eastern European countries switch straight to renewables? Firstly, because of intermittency concerns, but also because of land constraints. The “Road for EU Climate neutrality 2050” study argues, specifically for the Czech Republic, that renewable energy may not be the silver bullet solution to fulfilling local energy demand, and that its deployment will be made difficult by the challenging landscape of the country.
The study finally claims the cost advantages of nuclear energy over renewables. This statement is often subject to discussion, as many argue that capital costs are higher for thermal power plants than for wind and solar installations. However, the lifespan of nuclear plants and wind turbines is quite different, and no common strategy currently exists with regards to turbines and solar panel retrofitting or recycling.
But for the time being, renewables remain a luxury Eastern European States simply can’t afford. "We found it remarkable that - in transitioning away from fossil fuels - the EU made a policy decision in favour of renewable energy without considering the relative pros and cons of all carbon-neutral technologies", Czech MEP Ond?ej Knotek said, quoted by World Nuclear News.
By Tatiana Serova for Oilprice.com
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