Nuclear energy – an opportunity for Europe?
This paper is an extended version of a presentation made at the conference ''Nuclear energy – an opportunity for Europe?''organised in Paris on January 23, 2023, by the association Passages – ADAPES. A short version of the paper was published in French on the web site of the association “Le Pont” (https://lepontdesidees.fr/quand-le-nucleaire-reveille-leurope).
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has revealed the failure of the European electricity market, which has been understood and analysed by specialists for many years.
It also put the role of nuclear energy back at the centre of the debate on Europe's independence and energy security. Electricity is a strategic asset, a public good. Governments have an inescapable responsibility to ensure that citizens have access to this essential good. To produce enough carbon-free, reliable, and affordable electricity in 2050 while ensuring the country's independence and energy security, nuclear energy has an indispensable role to play. Virtually no electricity generators in operation today, apart from the newest nuclear power plants, will be operational by 2050. Only governments can carry out a large-scale nuclear power plant development program with an acceptable cost of capital, to reap all the geostrategic, economic, and societal benefits. They must de-risk projects to facilitate the entry of private capital.
The Russian and Chinese governments have understood this for a long time. More recently, the U.S. government has made a significant shift in favour of nuclear, aware of its role in national security and its geostrategic significance, with a clear goal of regaining global leadership in civil nuclear power. The same applies to the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, or Korea.
In this major global evolution, the European Union, although highly dependent on imports of fossil fuels and raw materials, remains deeply divided over the role of nuclear energy. The purely ideological and irrational opposition of many governments prevents the EU from implementing ambitious policies to support nuclear energy, which are essential to achieve its energy, industrial and climate objectives, with the risk of economic decline and structural dependence on the other powers of the contemporary multipolar world.
We are still a fossil fuel civilization. The war in Ukraine was a stark reminder of this reality. A few numbers: fossil energy represented 85% of global primary energy consumption in 2000 and 82% in 2021. It was “only” 70% in the EU.
After 20 years of intensive development and $4.5 trillion of global investment, wind and solar covered only one fourth of primary energy consumption growth since 2000. Hydro added 8%, the rest of the growth came from fossil fuels.
Electricity represents 17% of global primary energy consumption. It is obvious that wind and solar alone cannot make the difference.
Nuclear energy – the only scalable, reliable low-carbon source of energy, capable to produce electricity, heat, hydrogen, provide desalination, available 24/7 can make a significant dent in weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.
This is not new. All this was known to the specialists’ community. Despite this, the prevailing political discourse in Europe was – and to a large extent still is – ever more renewables and phase out of nuclear power.
This has changed after Feb 24, 2022. People, media, and the politicians suddenly realised the significance energy security and energy independence. We had already lived through such a moment back in 1973 with the first oil shock but we have forgotten the lesson. For years the prevailing discourse was that electricity is a commodity like any other one and that liberalised markets are the best solution to provide affordable electricity for all. Successful deregulation of the telecoms market was supposed to guarantee the success of deregulated electricity markets.
Electricity is not an ordinary commodity
At last, everyone seems to grasp now that electricity is not a commodity like any other. It is a strategic asset, a critical infrastructure. If the prices go up, people will not blame the markets, they will blame the governments. And if one day electricity is not available, this will be seen as a default of the state on one of the basic services it should provide to its citizens – with all the consequences. By default, the government is responsible to provide necessities like water, heat, and electricity to people. It is an inescapable obligation of the state. Contracts don’t matter when things get critical (see e.g., state interventions during the current crisis, the “bouclier tarifaire” in France, obligation to EDF to sell more power at cost to alternative suppliers, see e.g., contract defaults in LNG supply to poorer countries in Asia whose suppliers breached their contracts and redirected their cargos to the EU offering a substantial premium. The Asian clients got paid the penalties, but they had no gas).
The backbone of the current EU electricity system was built mostly over 40 years after WWII. All the power plants, including all nuclear power plants, were built when the system was regulated. In the US, 100 reactors were built under regulated markets. We have then created a market based on marginal generation costs, started adding subsidised renewables to the system with zero marginal costs and priority access to the grid. This brought prices down, led to mothballing of tens of gigawatts of dispatchable sources; with the increasing share of intermittent renewables the price volatility kept growing. An environment not allowing any investment in non-subsidised dispatchable sources, no possibility to take a long-term view.
The system built in the last century was so robust and reliable that people forgot it existed and did not worry about its progressive degradation. Many assets were on life support. Nobody seemed to care. Adding intermittent renewables was bringing the prices down, everyone was happy. Turning the switch and having electricity – or heat – at very affordable prices that did not impact much the budgets even of the more modest families was taken for granted. It was not.
I worked in the UK in 2015-2016 and I recall the countless articles in the press and discussions on TV calling to stop the Hinkley Point C nuclear project immediately. The negotiated strike price was 3 times the then current electricity market price. When argued that nobody knows what the market prices will be in 5-10 years, the argument was dismissed with a condescending smile: with wind and solar getting cheaper by the day, the shale gas boom in the US and all the pipelines bringing cheap gas from Russia, Europe was heading for decades of low electricity prices…
A new non-fossil energy system will need a backbone based on nuclear energy. Governments have an indispensable role to play.
If we look at the EU electricity system today, practically nothing – except for the most recent nuclear power plants (N4 in France, OL3, FLA) – will still be in operation in 2050. The hundreds of billions of euros invested in wind and solar will have to be re-invested.
What we need is a long-term program, not a series of individual projects, which can only be taken up by the governments, provided they have the capability to develop a responsible long-term vision and to implement it. If they don’t have one, they will fail.
If you take any large nuclear project and look at it from a purely financial perspective, it is almost an impossible proposition – and this has been proven again and again in recent past, when many nuclear new build projects failed. Your plant will last for 60 years or more? No point, the discounted cash flows after 30 years are negligible, they don’t show up. Experienced utilities and investors may be willing to take the technology risk and the operational risk, but nobody will take the market risk – price risk and sales volume risk - for such a big investment. The amount of investment is huge, the construction time is long, the risk is important, the cost of capital will be high – and the project is dead.
If you look at the same project from a national policy perspective, which only a government can take, you see a different picture: the project will contribute to energy security of the country, it will provide reliable, clean energy 24/7 for 60 years or more and at stable production costs, it will allow long-term industrial development, creation of thousands of highly qualified jobs with high disposable income, hence huge indirect economic benefits. And we have a precedent in France – we had reliable, cheap, clean, and sustainable electricity for 40 years, with all the above-mentioned benefits, until we broke it through deregulation and artificial market policies.
Ensuring energy supply to its citizens is the obligation of the government. Markets have limitations, they cannot solve everything, they dissipate control and the ability to ensure sustainability. Governments must step in and do what the markets and private investors cannot do. They must develop policies, support long-term programs, not individual projects. No single project can achieve energy security and independence. A long-term low-carbon energy program can, considering all externalities and societal benefits. Cost of capital – more than the amount of capital – is the killer of nuclear projects. It must be made as low as reasonably achievable – to use the well-known nuclear terminology; any percentage point above that is a tax on the consumers and on the national economy. If the deliverability of the program becomes the key objective ensuring energy security of the country, measures must be taken to reduce the cost of capital. Governments can do that. The role of the government is to de-risk the projects, provide the necessary guarantees, to facilitate and leverage the entry of private financing, to support and protect equity investors especially in the early phases of projects where the upfront costs are huge but there is still no real project with a clear risk profile to present to financial investors. The government support needed to attract private sector investment could be a combination of long-term contracts, off-take price guarantees, direct state investment and some sharing of construction-phase risk, which is typically viewed as a major impediment to mobilizing private capital. The risks borne by the government are far outweighed by the future benefits – and the amounts of money required are dwarfed by the amounts of government money that had to be injected in the current energy crisis.
Recent shift in favour of nuclear power across the globe
After the Fukushima accident, all western governments took a step back from nuclear power. At the same time, the Russian and Chinese state-controlled conglomerates with their one-stop-shop approach and attractive state-supported financing packages became dominant in the global markets, openly and aggressively pursuing their governments’ geostrategic interests. China has the largest domestic nuclear program in the world with 16 reactors under construction. Rosatom has the largest foreign nuclear new build project portfolio in the world with 35 power units at different stages of implementation in 12 countries. Rosatom also oversees over a third of the global market of uranium conversion and enrichment.
In those days, in western countries, international cooperation was the buzzword. Western firms tried to develop alliances and partnerships with the increasingly experienced and competitive Russian and Chinese companies to have a share in their developments, to have access to their technical and financial resources.
This has changed in the last few years, most notably in the United States.
The increasing awareness of the role that nuclear power can play in reducing carbon emissions, the new dynamics in the domain of small modular reactors and advanced nuclear technologies (fission and fusion) and their ability to decarbonise other hard-to-abate sectors of the economy, together with the determination of western democracies to play a leading role in the energy transition, were at the origin of this radical shift. The Russian invasion of Ukraine confirmed and reinforced its relevance.
The DOE new strategy document “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage” (April 2020), starting with the statement that “Nuclear power is intrinsically tied to National Security”, is quite blunt and straightforward in assessing the current situation, stating that America has lost its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy to state-owned enterprises, notably Russia and China. The objective of the strategy is to restore American nuclear energy leadership and America’s competitive nuclear advantages.
Multiple initiatives were launched at a stunning pace following this radical strategic move. The funding of these programs was boosted through Biden’s Infrastructure Bill signed into law in November 2021. The landmark Inflation Reduction Act legislation provides up to $15/MWh of production credits to operating nuclear power plants, incentivizes new nuclear development offering a 30% investment tax credit which can go up to 50% under certain conditions and, last but not least, invests $700 million to support the development of a domestic supply chain for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) with the additional objective to reduce the US dependence on Russian uranium conversion and enrichment services.
The US government and businesses work hard to promote engagement with allied and partner nations to develop a civil nuclear export strategy and offset China and Russia’s growing influence on international nuclear energy development. We have seen the recent success of these policies in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
The US government’s pro-climate policies attract growing interest in nuclear energy from utilities, large industrial consumers and create a favourable climate for private investment. Four billion dollars were invested by venture capitalists in nuclear start-ups in 2021, we have seen the recent deal between Dow Chemical and X-Energy, the acquisition of 49% of Westinghouse by Cameco.
And we see similar dynamics in other developed economies. Great ambition in the field of SMRs in Canada combining public support (e.g., a 30% investment tax credit) with private investment. One example: Bruce Power and OPG issued green bonds that were largely oversubscribed. Japan’s Green Transformation program provides a major funding boost for technologies including nuclear, Korea is looking to increase the share of nuclear and renewables in its energy mix. The United Kingdom put nuclear power at the core of its Energy Security Strategy with an ambition to deliver 24 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2050. In March this year, the UK passed The Nuclear Energy Financing Act. This establishes a new Regulated Asset Base (RAB) funding model as an option to finance small, large, and advanced nuclear projects. This model has successfully supported the development of large-scale infrastructure and the UK government is confident that it will do the same for future nuclear projects. In the end of last year, the government announced a £700 million direct investment in the Sizewell C project and subsequently announced the Great British Nuclear Initiative: an internal government organisation to lead the nuclear programme and deploy skills in project-based entities with the goal to creating certainty, and catalysing investment.
Europe lagging behind
The European Union, the Commission, the European Parliament - all remain deeply divided on the question of nuclear power. Recall the taxonomy drama. And in the end nuclear passed because it was a deal with gas – nuclear for gas and gas for nuclear. This equilibrium has changed after Feb 24, 2022. Gas is no longer a long-term option for EU’s energy security. Nuclear progressively imposes itself under the pressure of reality, more and more countries want to rely on nuclear power to reach EU’s net-zero ambitions. But without consensus, we can only expect the least common denominator type compromises at the EU level. For real nuclear development in the EU, there must be a level playing field with renewable energies in terms of political support, state aid rules and access to finance. The inclusion of nuclear energy in the green taxonomy is a first step, but it is not enough. The EU has departed from the sacrosanct principle of competition for the Common Agricultural Policy and for the subsidy and priority production schemes granted to renewable energies. If the decarbonisation of all sectors that consume fossil fuels is a real concern for the EU, then comparable support policies should be granted to nuclear energy. We need clear pro-nuclear policies from European and international development banks and multilateral organisations, including the World Bank. They should adopt open, inclusive, and technology-neutral financing approaches, clearly articulate the conditions under which they would support new nuclear construction – both large reactors and SMRs and advanced reactors. The EU should support the innovative initiative of the International Bank for Nuclear Infrastructure – a new conceptual multilateral international financial institution (IFI) that wants to focus solely on supporting its member countries in developing new nuclear programmes or expanding existing ones.
Pro-nuclear European countries – EU members or not - should cooperate, develop European supply chains, share engineering and consultancy resources, educational and training facilities, share and harmonize regulatory practices. The EU should support all such initiatives.
If we look at the new nuclear projects ongoing and announced in Europe, they count several dozens of large reactors and many more dozens of SMRs: France, Poland, UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Slovenia. Energy-intensive industries are looking at nuclear as last and perhaps unique means to decarbonize and have access to affordable, reliable, 24/7 clean electricity and heat. Keeping these industries in Europe is a major geopolitical issue for the future of Europe.
The needs are enormous and there is enough room for several suppliers, for a European supply chain. But it would be regrettable not to see European technologies and companies make a major contribution to these major developments. They are of crucial importance for the reindustrialisation of Europe, which is so much called for by the European Union and governments. The Union should do much more at political level to support this crucial long-term effort to maintain and develop its industrial base and to enable European companies to compete on a level playing field with foreign suppliers. A recent example: the front-end engineering and design for the construction of 6 new nuclear units in Poland was carried out by American companies and funded by the US government. This kind of financing of the initial phases of a nuclear project is essential to create a solid foundation for the project. No wonder Poland chose Westinghouse technology. The existence or absence of this kind of support within the EU will determine what the EU will be in the coming decades. Otherwise, the EU will remain dependent on foreign supplies, as is unfortunately already the case in the field of defence, digital technology, and even renewable energies.
For years the nuclear community was on the defensive, patiently collecting facts, data, arguments, increasingly supported by reputable national and international institutions. The war in Ukraine revealed the fragility of our energy system and the failure of the EU energy policy in its 3 dimensions – affordability, security, and sustainability. Sustainability must be evaluated in the broad sense, including social and societal sustainability. In a continent without energy resources like Europe, we will not have energy security and we will not be able to decarbonize our economies without a significant contribution of nuclear power. It’s no longer a question of yes or no for nuclear power, the urgent question is how to deploy it quickly and effectively. It’s a question of deliverability and scalability.
Affordable, low carbon, safe and reliable nuclear energy is a necessary and significant component of the world's collective pathway to reach Net Zero by 2050 in the most sustainable manner.
We need bright people, a strong industry, we need to de-risk and bring down the cost of capital of nuclear projects to make them attractive for private investment. We should not be looking at individual projects but at long-term programs to guarantee sustainable, reliable, affordable low carbon energy for all. Only governments can take up the challenge of implementing this societal vision. It is their responsibility and their obligation.