Nuclear Power: Friend or Foe?

Recall the tone around the role nuclear in the EU energy mix in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster? It was hostile. It was as hostile as the appetite for saturated fats these days. It’s easy, satisfies the needs and consequences nowhere in sight until they break the scale. But time forgets, the same way the memory of the Japanese nuclear disaster half-lived with the passing of years.

But soon after the hazard stroke, a wave of reactions prompted by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster emerged across the EU Member States. Mycle Schneider, the international nuclear energy consultant, deemed the disaster a ‘unique chance to get it right’ on energy policy by accelerating Germany’s nuclear phase out by 2022. In Italy, the population voted 94% against the government pursuing new nuclear projects, in a referendum. But the boldest of statements came from the nuclear hungry French administration which announced the intention to curtail by one third nuclear usage towards 2050. France is the largest nuclear power producer in Europe, accounting for half of the EU(28) nuclear electricity production and three quarters of its own gross electricity. Widely, EU Member States shared a bitter sentiment towards nuclear energy soon after the disaster, and action was proposed to be undertaken to diminish its role in the future.

Let the Fukushima disaster be only a reminder of how expensive nuclear disasters have become and how far reaching they are in time. It ended up costing the Japanese government $105 billion in the five years since the disaster, with an additional $23 billion awaiting to be spent in the clean-up process. This represents twice as much compared to what Japanese authorities predicted back in 2011. Radiation clean-up and compensation to residents make up the largest part of the cost, which are far reaching in time as the full scale of the impact has not entirely been accounted for.

Comparative life-cycle GHG emissions of different energy sources

Comparative life-cycle GHG emissions of different energy sources (Source: WNA report)

Before tragedy stroke, nuclear energy enjoyed a positive reputation among energy sources. It is clean, concentrated and mildly affected by security of supply. It’s life cycle emissions are significantly lower than those of fossil fuels, hovering in the same emission cluster with renewable energy sources. Aside from generating very low emissions, nuclear is a highly concentrated power source. 4g of enriched uranium can generate the same amount of energy as 300cm gas/350kg coal/250 litres of oil. Because of its high concentration and the fact that uranium ores are more vastly available across the globe compared to some fossil fuels, nuclear has lower security of supply risks.

Despite the wide range of benefits, the potential of nuclear is shadowed by the risks of nuclear waste and the cost of capacity decommissioning. In Europe, the first generation of capacity built in the 1960s is approaching closure and decommissioning. The discussion has been gently postponed with the nuclear life-time extensions awarded since the 1990s, about the issue is surfacing back causing friction between tax payers and utilities. Moreover, the issue with nuclear waste is not fully resolved given there is a lack of sensible long term implications of the way underground storage behave.

Nuclear Reactors

Upon COP21 though, EU Member States are faced with an ironic choice. The targets set out in the EU energy framework regarding GHG emission reduction targets, the adoption of renewable energies and energy efficiency are all binding for Member States. In consequence Member States vouch their efforts to decommission their energy mix, a task that can be carried out either by subsidizing renewable capacities or with the integration of nuclear in the mix. If memory serves well, the stand on re-adopting nuclear is hostile as some utilities deemed it a ‘loosing value proposition’.

One of the most vocal EU Member State to look away from nuclear energy by 2022 is Germany, a country with a green plan. The firm pursue for renewables in the energy mix is paying off for Germany, as their contribution reached 40% of primary electricity consumption in 2015. The country is way on its way to achieve the GHG emission reduction targets it so strongly hangs on, by 2030.

Unlike their neighbour, Belgium and France are in a delicate situation. In Belgium, nuclear capacity contributes to 45% of the total gross electricity production in 2014, with decommissioning prospects sending the energy mix in a tight situation. The country is in ‘urgent’ need for additional capacity to replace part of the nuclear whilst keeping electricity prices competitive and complying with the GHG emission reduction targets. Just as in the case of France, the renewable energy potential is limited and its implementation costly. Such issues are sending governments back to the drawing board to re-assess the decarbonisation framework.

The emission reduction targets act as a constraining factor for EU Member States to reconsider their position on nuclear for the energy transition. Slovakia recently added two reactors, France and Finland have reactors under construction and the UK has started negotiations with the French utility EDF for the construction of a new reactor at Hinkley Point. This is an indication that after the diffusion of the nuclear crisis the sentiment is warming up towards nuclear, at least at the surface.

The pressure is stronger for Member States which have little RES potential while in the meantime can’t afford to spend significant amounts from their budgets on technologies which have not proven their maturity value. Cases in point are the UK and Poland which need to face the pain of moving away from coal while they have little RES potential. For the UK the financial aspect is not as problematic as for Poland, that is why the Hinkley Point debate is making headlines. Poland keeps tapping the argument that its hungry energy economy can’t support the cost of nuclear or RES subsidies for now.

In the near future, when the European Commission is going to press the binding decarbonisation targets against the door, Member States such as Poland will have to decide quickly whether nuclear will still be a foe, or it will become their energy friend in the transition.