Europe is in danger of losing its leading position in nuclear power, warns Claude Fischer Herzog, Director of ASCPE-Les Entretiens Européens et Eurafricains, a prominent Paris-based pro-nuclear civil society organisation. Fischer calls on the EU to develop an industrial policy of which nuclear power will form an integral part.
What are the strongest policy signals at EU level for the future of nuclear in Europe?
The Euratom Treaty has made Europe a major industrial power thanks to nuclear technology. However, 60 years later, nuclear power is absent from the Energy Union, which is not a good political signal! To maintain its leading position, European industry needs an industrial sector policy. However, the market discourages long-term investment, competition policy prohibits – except on a case-by-case basis – long-term contracts considered as State aid. Although the Commission has given a positive signal by accepting the Contract for Difference (CfD) in the United Kingdom [for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power project, ed.], it is insufficient because nuclear power is excluded from the question of the energy mix, which is not properly centered at the level of the Union on the basis of growth, competitiveness and CO2 reduction.
What are the main issues in the Clean Energy Package [the European Commission’s set of legislative proposals for the future EU energy market] for nuclear?
Since 2008, the Commission has favoured renewable energies to the detriment of nuclear energy, which does not emit greenhouse gases. This “positive discrimination” has had many perverse effects on safety and competitiveness, leading to a renationalisation of energy policies and fragmentation of the market. The 2016 Winter Package [i.e. Clean Energy Package] offers more solidarity on the market, adapting it with new rules and better price signals to reach 50% of renewables in 2050. Will these rules apply to nuclear power? The Community’s nuclear indicative program PINC [Nuclear Illustrative Program, a position paper on nuclear power published irregularly by the European Commission, ed.] focuses solely on investments for safety, decommissioning of plants and waste management. But if safety becomes a dimension of nuclear competitiveness in Europe, it will be counterproductive! There must be both security and competitiveness policy.
What is the state of the European nuclear industry? What is needed to strengthen the industry?
With 131 reactors and the largest nuclear fleet in the world, Europe has considerable European know-how that must be valued, especially since it will need 120 gigawatts (GW) of new generation capacity 2024 and will have to replace or renovate 150 GW of power plants (mostly nuclear and coal). This is a considerable challenge for all the Member States which will have to invest heavily in their own energy. However, the share of nuclear power declined from 32% in 2002 to 26.7% in the European electricity mix. Given the competitiveness of nuclear power, several European states are extending the life of the power stations, others are building new ones, and a dozen are planned. For these projects to be realized, the European Union must go beyond supporting the Astrid pilot project [a sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor] and the ITER [nuclear fusion] program! It must put in place a sector policy that focuses on long-term investments and their financing and fostering partnerships between financial and industrial investors.
Is new build the most promising direction for future growth? In Europe, or globally?
Countries such as China and India, which are facing a sharp rise in population, have realized that they will not complete their energy consumption balance and their CO2 commitments without nuclear power. If we want to meet global energy demand and contain global warming at 2°C, we will have to deploy 930 GW of nuclear capacity and increase capacity by 530 GW by 2050. A disengagement from Europe at the very moment we enter a new nuclear age would be an enormous handicap for the sector and its export strengths, but also for safety, which is a global public good.
What are the prospects for European industry growth in areas such as decommissioning, waste management, waste conditioning etc.?
The challenge is all the greater in that it will be necessary to renovate, close or replace 200 reactors (out of 434). Dismantling is a long and expensive process that will require an efficient industry, adapted skills, long-term financing, a regulated market with clear regulations and authorization processes, controlled nuclear waste management, and a lot of solidarity and transparency. It is a task for the coming decades that requires action and commitment – and not leaving it to future generations. A formidable question for Europe: will dismantling be a factor of integration or, on the contrary, a worsening of tensions between operators and states within Europe?
How does economic pressure on operators affect safety standards at nuclear power stations?
I would like to return the question and examine the maintenance and operating costs of the nuclear reactors that have to meet the electricity consumption and nuclear safety standards that have been tightened after the Fukushima disaster. In France, the costs of the “grand carénage“ [national refit programme after Fukushima, ed.] are estimated at €100 billion for the 58 reactors. With the volume of electricity produced and sold constant, nuclear power production costs are expected to rise, with provisions for dismantling, from €49.60/MWh to €62.60/MWh. If the share of nuclear power is reduced in the mix, safety costs will be increased but these costs could be amortized if the sector is regenerated and if the costs of exporting are shared.
How will Brexatom affect Europe’s nuclear industry?
With the departure of the United Kingdom from Euratom, the nuclear states lose a powerful ally against Germany, which is working to ensure that all Euratom funds are directed towards dismantling programs rather than production and research. We may also wonder about the future of JET (Joint European Torus) that Euratom finances 50% or the construction of ITER with a budget of €18 billion. But of course, we mainly think of the French industry, committed to the construction of two EPRs [reactors] at Hinkley Point, a €21 billion project that is scheduled to start in 2019 and eventually provide 7% of the UK’s electricity.
Claude Fischer Herzog is Director of ASCPE-Les Entretiens Européens & Eurafricains, a Paris-based organisation decdicated to promoting nuclear power in Europe. Les Entretiens Européens [European debates] will host a high-level summit on “the issues of nuclear competitiveness in Europe” on 19 October in Brussels.