top of page
  • J. Bartak

The revival of nuclear power in Europe






This paper is an English version of the paper published in French on the website of the association “Le Pont” (https://lepontdesidees.fr/le-renouveau-du-nucleaire-en-europe/).



The Russian invasion of Ukraine revealed the short-sighted energy policy conducted by the EU for two or three decades. It was certainly not the cause of this crisis as it is still often presented by certain politicians or media. The EU's energy policy was inspired by German voluntarism, itself largely based on ideology,[1] but implemented in a rational and pragmatic way. Behind the ecological discourse there was a pragmatic desire to keep coal/lignite (get out of nuclear first) and gradually replace it with gas. The major role attributed to gas as the most effective means of decarbonization has been supported by a widely theorized US policy across the Atlantic – where abundant and cheap shale gas has gradually replaced coal and contributed to a substantial reduction in emissions from the US electricity sector. In the European context, it was cheap Russian gas that was to play this role, with the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 projects. Some EU countries have voiced opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project, especially after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. But Germany, with the support of its powerful gas-intensive industry and – let us remember – supported by France, won its case, defending Nord Stream 2 as a purely commercial project. No one seemed worried by the gradual and inevitable decline in gas production in Europe, including Norway. Europe's dependence on Russia was growing stronger every year, resulting in the loss of the EU's energy security and sovereignty.


The German model based on the strong growth of renewable energies supported by coal and gas has been imposed on the entire EU. The EU did not talk about energy security but only about climate issues, setting increasingly ambitious targets with only two main monitoring indicators – the rate of renewable energies in electricity production and energy efficiency with a focus on reducing final energy consumption.


We can note in passing a paradox: the German model has never been discussed with its partners, while it can exist only thanks to its neighbors and the possibility, or rather the necessity, to export to them electricity from renewable energies when it is abundant (and thus weaken their national producers) and rely on them for imports in the absence of wind and sunshine. Germany pushed very hard for the massive financing of interconnections emphasizing the principle of European solidarity, but which was in reality particularly advantageous for Germany.


The growth of tensions within the EU was inevitable. Energy security is a top priority for every country. Central and Eastern European countries, which are mostly endowed with their own coal resources and have developed an energy mix with a significant proportion of coal, were at an impasse to meet the EU's climate requirements. In an anti-nuclear environment within the EU, the major difficulties of financing nuclear projects, with renewable resources often limited and – above all – without the financial resources comparable to those of Germany to finance their development, these countries had no choice but to aim for the replacement of coal by gas.


It should also be remembered that the countries that have nevertheless decided to develop nuclear energy have chosen Rosatom - the only supplier capable of offering an integrated “one-stop-shop” technical solution with acceptable financing conditions. This was the case in Finland and Hungary; Rosatom was in the position of preferred supplier for the new reactor for the Dukovany plant in the Czech Republic before the deteriorating international geopolitical situation and the change of government led to the exclusion of Russia and China from the tender in 2021.


The war in Ukraine has made it impossible for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to move towards gas. The natural consequence will be prolonged use of coal, security and energy independence will always take precedence over climate considerations. Poland has already announced the extension of the operating life of certain coal mines and power plants that use this resource.


It is clear that in the long term coal is an unacceptable solution in Europe (barring rapid and unlikely progress on CCUS[2]). For this reason, given the historical, geographical, and cultural context, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe can consider their energy security and the achievement of climate objectives only by fully focusing on nuclear power. The European Commission's brakes on nuclear power are becoming unacceptable – a radical change in the EU's nuclear policy is urgently needed. And it is now only the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, we have recently seen changes in position and legislative acts in favour of nuclear power in the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Italy.



The difficult reduction of dependence on gas. The hydrogen bet


The EU's heavy dependence on Russian gas, and Germany in particular, cannot be solved overnight.


In the “dependence on Russian gas” there is above all the “dependence on gas”. Germany has – paying premium prices and to the detriment of many emerging countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Pakistan) – developed gasification terminals in record time and has become dependent on American and Qatari LNG. A strategically less critical dependence but a dependency nonetheless. And let's not forget that LNG is and will always be more expensive and more polluting than gas imported by pipeline. Not to mention shale gas, the extraction of which remains banned in most EU member states. To build new liquefaction terminals in the United States, suppliers will require long-term contracts, which will lock in dependency for decades. And many experts remind us that shale gas is not eternal...


Recall that the energy crisis caused by soaring gas prices resulted in an EU trade deficit of €432 billion in 2022.


However, the massive development of gas-backed renewable energies remains the cornerstone of German energy policy. This is obviously their right and choice, as long as it is not imposed on other countries through the EU's environmental, climate and energy policies. This has too often been the case in the past.


In the face of the energy crisis, the ambition for the development of renewable energies was further raised in the "Easter Package" announced by the German government in spring 2023. The ambition that does not sound credible to an external observer, yet still insufficient to assure the electrification of new uses (electric mobility, heat pumps, hydrogen production etc.). The goals for 2030 are extraordinary in every way:

- 215 GW of solar (currently 71 GW: in 8 years develop 2 times more than in the last 20 years);

- 115 GW of onshore wind (currently 56 GW: develop 8 GW per year, knowing that growth has been low for 8 years – around 2 GW/year)

- 30 GW of offshore wind in 2030 (currently 8.3 GW, so almost multiply by 4 in 8 years the current fleet)


Bloomberg estimated the cost of this program – to be carried out before 2030 – at one trillion euros.


What will happen with the electricity grid when the rate of intermittent renewables reaches 70% or 80% of production from the point of view of its stability, what will be the need for rotating masses, etc. ? No one knows for sure today.


Another question: will this development strengthen the energy independence of Germany and Europe?


For photovoltaics, EU’s dependence on China is now almost total[3], it is growing for onshore wind, China's extraordinary performance in offshore wind development over the last 2-3 years may put the offshore wind industry (where the EU considered itself relatively protected) in difficulty.


To ensure security of supply, intermittent renewable energies need to rely on dispatchable sources. Germany has shut down its nuclear power plants, so intermittent renewable energies will be backed up by coal and gas plants. The exit from coal becoming unavoidable in the mid-term, Germany plans to build 21 GW of new gas-fired power plants in addition to the 34 GW of existing gas-fired plants. The question of associated emissions and strategic dependence on imported gas is evacuated by a simple argument: the new plants will be "hydrogen ready". Let us leave aside the maturity of technologies for burning pure hydrogen in gas turbines and the problem of its transport and storage at the place of electricity production. Germany plans to produce 960 TWh of electricity in 2050 to ensure the electrification of uses. Taking the bold assumption that 80% of this production would be provided by intermittent renewable energies, some 200 TWh will remain to be produced in these dispatchable plants, representing the consumption of about 6 million tons of hydrogen. The production of this amount of hydrogen by electrolysis will require some 300 TWh of carbon-free electricity.


Making such a bet on hydrogen seems very audacious. In recent months, there has been a considerable change in the discourse on hydrogen. The blissful optimism is no longer there. Despite the more than generous funding, projects do not manage to take off given the technical and economic complexity of their implementation. The dominant discourse is becoming much more realistic: the use of hydrogen will be reserved for sectors that are difficult to decarbonize otherwise, especially through the direct use of electricity. A point of view defended by many independent specialists for a long time...


In his presentation at the World Hydrogen Summit in Rotterdam in May 2023, BP's hydrogen director described hydrogen as the most complex commodity of all, saying that the priority of its use should be reserved for industrial uses[4] and that the transport of liquid hydrogen currently makes no economic sense.


Despite these calls for realism, the EU – and Germany in particular – is still very optimistic about the role of hydrogen in decarbonization; this optimism takes on the appearance of utopia given the resistance of some countries to consider low-carbon hydrogen, produced with nuclear energy, on par with green hydrogen produced with renewable electricity.


In Germany, the construction of renewable sources to produce green hydrogen comes in addition to the electricity production targets presented above. Given the massive quantities required (4-5 Mt in 2030), the government plans to produce 30% of the need in the country (the production of 1.5 Mt will require the installation of 10 GW of electrolyzers assuming they can operate at least 7500 hours in a year) and import the remaining 70% (3 Mt). Import agreements have been signed with many countries - Australia, Brazil, Namibia, Uruguay, Angola, ....


The example of Angola is quite edifying: the agreement concerns the provision of 400 MWe from a hydropower plant (2 GWe plant currently being completed) to produce green hydrogen. Angola is a country of 34 million inhabitants, less than 50% of whom have access to electricity. This figure does not exceed 10% in rural areas. Electricity consumption per capita is 500 kWh, it is 7000 kWh in Germany... The installed capacity in Angola is around 5 GW (236 GW in Germany). The hydrogen produced will be transformed into ammonia which is easier to transport. The production of ammonia by the Haber-Bosch process will require additional ~400 MWe. The electrification of Angola and its development for the benefit of its population will wait...


The EU's objectives are no less ambitious: 10 Mt of hydrogen (green or low-carbon – the debate continues...) produced on European soil in 2030, which will require an additional electricity production of about 500 TWh (equivalent to Germany's current production) and 10 Mt of imported hydrogen, mainly from the Middle East and Africa. How? The question remains, as does the question of the EU's energy sovereignty. The energy efficiency of the hydrogen cycle is very low, transformation into ammonia and retransformation into hydrogen after transport requires a lot of energy and further reduces the efficiency. A few reminders to measure the size of the challenge: to produce LNG, the gas must be cooled to -162 ° C, to liquefy hydrogen, you must go down to -253 ° C, only 20 degrees above absolute zero. Per unit volume, liquid hydrogen contains three times less energy than LNG. If we had ships to transport liquid hydrogen of the same size as the most modern LNG carriers (we do not have them), we would need three times as many ships to transport the same amount of energy. A third of the hydrogen is lost during its liquefaction (for LNG the losses are "only" 10%), the losses by evaporation during transport are of the order of 1% per day (0.1% for LNG).


To produce hydrogen by electrolysis on European soil, it will be necessary to develop the manufacturing capacity of some 100 GW of electrolysers in 2030. With China's success in PV and batteries that we are experiencing, there is no reason to think that China will not succeed in taking global leadership in electrolyzer manufacturing – state support, industrial policy, vertical integration (R&D, industry) and horizontal integration (value chain). The problem of the EU's sovereignty and energy security remains.


And even if the EU succeeds in repatriating the production of key technologies (e.g. gigafactories for batteries), costs will be higher and raw materials will still be imported. The quantities of these raw materials will be enormous, a direct consequence of the low energy density of intermittent renewables and batteries.


No EU energy sovereignty without nuclear power


Nuclear is the only low-carbon technology that preserves and strengthens the EU's energy sovereignty – existence of advanced industry, European supply chain, expertise and skills, skilled jobs, low dependence on imports compared to other low-carbon technologies.


The pro- and anti-nuclear debate is an ideological debate from another time that we can no longer afford.


In France, the recent parliamentary inquiry into the reasons for the loss of energy sovereignty and independence clearly demonstrated that France has for three decades systematically weakened its high-performance, low-carbon electricity system, based on nuclear and hydropower, and has not sufficiently defended its model within the EU – by ideology, lack of political will, incompetence, lack of attention to the warnings of experts and scientists.


Faced with reality, the turnaround initiated with President Macron's second five-year term is late but salutary. A growing number of EU member states are coming to the same conclusion – energy sovereignty and climate goals are not achievable without a major contribution from nuclear energy.

The EU must finally realise that Europe is the continent with the largest proportion of nuclear power in its energy mix. Nuclear power produces 25% of the Union's electricity and 50% of carbon-free electricity. The good performance of the EU's electricity system in terms of emissions compared to other regions of the world is achieved thanks to nuclear power.


The geopolitical stakes are enormous. To reindustrialise, the EU will have to massively increase its electricity production while reducing its dependence on imported fossil fuels as well as dependence on imports of critical technologies and raw materials, of which renewable energy technologies and batteries are major consumers. It seems obvious that the choice must be directed towards solutions that minimize this dependence, with a systemic vision. If the EU wants to ensure its energy security while respecting climate commitments, it is imperative to abandon ideology, systematically think "low carbon" instead of "green" or "renewable", provide the same support to all low-carbon solutions considering the EU's ability to constitute complete, competitive and strategically independent industrial sectors and supply chains. Strict political neutrality, technologically neutral support policies, including state aid for all low-carbon energies. All support and financing mechanisms should include nuclear, and financing bodies such as the EIB or the EBRD should not discriminate against nuclear technologies.


The EU must redefine energy policy in the long term, amend the Treaties as necessary. The EU's energy security should be the cornerstone of such a policy. It will have to provide the framework for reforming the electricity and gas market. Energy infrastructure is essential for the sovereignty of countries, electricity is an essential common good for the functioning of a modern society. The production, transmission, and distribution of such an important commodity cannot be left to the market alone.


Nuclear energy was at the origin of the European community. On 25 March 1957, in Rome, the six founding Member States of the European Community signed the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, known as the 'Euratom' Treaty, which aimed to ensure international cooperation in the nuclear field. The objective of this founding treaty, which is still in force, is to promote research and ensure the dissemination of technical information, facilitate investment and establish relations with other countries and international organizations conducive to progress in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Euratom requires unanimity among Member States. Given the divisions within the EU, it is poorly respected and poorly applied. Sixty-six years after its entry into force, geopolitical, energy and climate issues in 2023 are unprecedented. Euratom should evolve to address these issues. The European Commission is the guardian of the treaties. However, despite the existence of Euratom, in the various decarbonisation programmes, with each new text, each new directive, each new initiative, be it the taxonomy, the FitFor55 plan, RepowerEU, the RED[5] directives, the hydrogen texts, the NZIA[6] - to integrate nuclear energy into the various mechanisms a new battle must be waged by its proponents in European institutions.


Take the example of the NZIA which has been presented as a strong EU ambition for the EU's strategic manufacturing capacity for low-carbon technologies to reach at least 40% of the EU's[7] annual deployment needs by 2030. Existing nuclear power is excluded from the NZIA. During the presentation of the NZIA, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made her position clear: "Nuclear power is not strategic". Yet, as we have seen, there is nothing more strategic than nuclear power for the EU. NZIA remains open to new nuclear power (which does not exist yet) but advanced reactors are not mentioned in the list of strategic technologies.


The NZIA was developed as a European response to the American IRA[8] . However, unlike the latter, it remains more at the level of a political declaration – a pseudo-consensus on crucial issues on which EU countries fundamentally disagree.


The proposed measures do not live up to the ambitions. They mainly consist of prioritizing strategic projects in terms of permits and in the judicial system. There is no budget associated with the NZIA, whereas the IRA has a budget of $370 billion. Another missed opportunity. Investments will be made there and not here...


Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism, even if progress is too slow in relation to the urgency of the issues.


The nuclear alliance recently launched by 15 EU countries with the support of the United Kingdom brings together pro-nuclear countries and sets the goal of having 150 GW of nuclear capacity in Europe by 2050.


With the extraordinary human energy of the defenders of common sense and hundreds of hours of often sterile debates that waste precious time, the lines are gradually moving. The main reason for this is the evolution of public opinion: support for nuclear power has never been greater in the majority of EU countries. The energy crisis of 2021-2022 has greatly contributed to the education of the general public on energy, to the understanding of the issues and physical realities of energy, the importance of energy sovereignty. It is increasingly difficult to convince public opinion that Austria, Germany and Luxembourg are right in opposing nuclear power and that, as a result, the United States, China, India, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, France and 14 other EU countries, but also Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil and dozens of other countries – those who see nuclear as a major resource for their energy independence, industrial development and the decarbonisation of their economies, would all be wrong.


The 2024 European elections should confirm this paradigm shift. If public opinion is in favour of nuclear power, lucid in the face of reality, politicians will follow. Citizens will no longer be fooled by a simplistic "green" discourse.


In France we often talk about the need for a strategic state to navigate the increasingly complex world. In the same way, we need a strategic EU to preserve the EU's position in the world, to reindustrialise. Energy is the basis of everything. Unlike the United States, Europe has no resources. It would be relevant to follow the example of China, which is in a similar situation – it develops in a structured and organized way all low-carbon energies (closely following what is happening in the EU to position itself on its markets - photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and their components, batteries, tomorrow electrolysers) without prejudices and without ideology.


Like what we see in China but also in the United States (IRA), the EU must change its attitude towards nuclear power. If the EU wants to maintain a position as an economic and industrial powerhouse, it cannot afford to exclude a major and scalable low-carbon energy source, in many respects superior to others.


We have lost 20 years. Betting on potential future innovations cannot constitute a responsible energy policy. There will be no energy security in Europe without nuclear power. A major shift is needed.


Reality always prevails – but too late if we lack vision. The stakes are high - the EU's role and position in the world.


Access to energy will be decisive for the future of the EU, its role in the world, its level of development, the prosperity of its citizens and ultimately its very existence.




[1] The founding text of the German "Energiewende", Leitstudie 2011 "the economic calculation is futile, because the benefits of renewable energies cannot be quantified: international détente by less competition for fossil resources, impossibility of diversion of these energies for military purposes, decentralized implementation conducive to stimulating local democracy" [2] Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage

[3] China has successfully developed a modern, high-tech and high-performance solar panel industry covering the entire value chain. With the scale effect linked to the size of the Chinese and international market and a well-established export logistics, it will be very difficult to compete with this industry. Protectionist measures at European level, which are probably necessary, will lead to a considerable increase in prices. [4] Recall that of the 94 Mt of hydrogen used in the world, only 64 kt is produced by electrolysis. [5] Renewable Energy Directive [6] Net Zero Industry Act [7] The American Inflation Reduction Act aims to produce 70% locally [8] Inflation Reduction Act



Comments


bottom of page