This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard’s EU Manager Brittany Demogenes
As the EU continues to brainstorm ways to meet its increasingly ambitious 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas emissions goals, one of the principal questions is to what extent nuclear power both can, and should, be used in order to reduce the EU’s total emissions. In a recent exchange in March 2021, International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi alluded to the fact that nuclear technology is advancing in a way that makes it more efficient and less costly; new small modular reactors that have been built can halve the construction time of nuclear power plants and decrease costs by moving a large part of the build off-site. Moreover, Grossi proposed that a solution may have been found for the highly contentious topic of nuclear waste that will allow for the creation of disposal sites where nuclear waste can be stored for hundreds of thousands of years. Grossi suggests nuclear energy can be an option for EU countries as they shift from the use of fossil fuels to other types of energy sources.
The EU currently relies on nuclear power for 1/4 of its electricity and a higher proportion of base-load power. Nuclear power provides half of the EU’s low-carbon electricity. The EU has 106 nuclear power reactors (104 GWe) operating in 13 of the 27 EU member states. Yet, what is interesting is the unevenness of the distribution. France produces over half of the EU’s nuclear energy and has 56 power plants. Germany is the EU country with the next largest number of nuclear plants and it only has eight. Meanwhile, countries including Denmark, Italy, Greece, Malta, and Austria have no nuclear power plants.
Nuclear energy in the EU is primarily governed by the Euratom Treaty, which was created as part of the founding of the EU in 1957. The Treaty provides a legal framework that allows for the growth and development of the nuclear industry while simultaneously enhancing fuel supply and providing nuclear plant safety. The Treaty, along with the 2011 Waste Directive, governs how nuclear waste is disposed of. Currently, final disposal occurs either through countries moving waste into a geologic repository of nuclear waste, by reprocessing the waste, or both. Reprocessing the waste entails the separation of plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste in order to allow states to use the plutonium for either fuel reactors or nuclear weapons.
The main authority for regulation and safety of nuclear facilities lies with individual member countries. However, the Western European Nuclear Regulators’ Association (WENRA) and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) also act as regulatory associations. WENRA is a network of chief regulators of EU countries with nuclear power plants and Switzerland and works to coordinate safety standards across Europe. ENSREG is comprised of senior officials from the national nuclear safety, radioactive waste safety and radiation protection regulatory authorities from all EU member states and tries to establish conditions for continuous improvement of nuclear energy use while also aiding states in reaching a common understanding in the areas of nuclear safety and radioactive waste management. In 2010, four national technical safety organizations also set up a European Nuclear Safety Training and Tutoring Institute (ENSTTI) to perform greater research and assessment in the fields of nuclear safety and radiation protection. The decommissioning of nuclear waste facilities is overseen by the European Learning Initiatives for Nuclear Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation (ELINDER), which trains the experts needed for nuclear decommissioning.
Yet, the use of nuclear energy in the EU faces numerous challenges and is criticized by a large number of individuals who deem its usage unsafe despite safety regulations. Data from the World Nuclear Industry Status Report showed that 90 of Europe’s reactors are at least 30 years old as of December 2020, which is concerning considering that nuclear power plants are only meant to be used for 40 years. The high cost of building new plants is causing some countries to consider extending the lives of their existing plants past the recommended time. Other countries have realized that many plants will have to be decommissioned given that corrosion and deterioration of parts due to age is increasing the cost and difficulty of maintaining them. Moreover, most reactor designs are not fitted with safety equipment that can adequately handle threats such as terrorist attacks, extreme weather and plane crashes, which is further causing countries to consider decommissioning them.
After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany is attempting to close all of its nuclear capacity by 2022 and numerous other countries in the EU are looking to reduce their nuclear capacity. Even France, which by far holds the greatest nuclear capacity in the EU, has not had any new nuclear plants come online since 1999. Ongoing projects in the EU in countries like France have also had numerous issues securing finance, technical design and mitigating safety concerns, which has led to large delays and the likelihood that these projects may not be finished until 2025.
Thus, given the slow pace of creating new nuclear power plants and countries’ fear of another nuclear disaster occurring, nuclear energy does not seem as though it will likely be the solution to the EU’s reduction in emissions. From now until 2030, nuclear capacity that will be lost due to the closure of a number of reactors, as a result of either political interference or of old age, is expected to outweigh the capacity gained from new reactors. As a result, renewable energy sources—as well as newer evolving technologies such as hydrogen—seem more likely to be harnessed in the EU’s decarbonization efforts.
Learn More Resources
“An Exchange of Views with the European Parliament: The IAEA and the EU: Tapping Nuclear to Advance Development, Health and Environmental Sustainability.” IAEA, IAEA, 16 Mar. 2021, www.iaea.org/newscenter/statements/an-exchange-of-views-with-the-european-parliament-the-iaea-and-the-eu-tapping-nuclear-to-advance-development-health-and-environmental-sustainability.
Chestney, Nina, and Susanna Twidale. “Climate Could Pay the Price as Europe’s Nuclear Plants Age.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 21 Dec. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-nuclearpower-analysis-idUKKBN28V26D.
“Nuclear Waste Management and Decommissioning.” EU Science Hub – European Commission, 23 June 2021, ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/research-topic/nuclear-waste-management-and-decommissioning.
“Power in the European Union.” Nuclear Power in the European Union – World Nuclear Association, Feb. 2021, www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/others/european-union.aspx.