France, embarked on a nuclear program that should lead to the construction of a minimum of six new reactors, promotes a global alliance to develop this energy source. A score of ministers of the European Union and allies such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Japan and South Korea have defended this week in Paris that, without more atomic reactors, it will be impossible to achieve the objectives of reducing polluting emissions. And they have demanded international public funding to develop this industrial sector questioned after the Fukushima accident in 2011, and which economic powers such as Germany have renounced.
With his presence and his words at the conference, entitled New roadmaps to nuclear, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, the French Thierry Breton, implied that Brussels supports renuclearization. A few days earlier, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had been open to opening the hand of public aid to the sector, aware that, today, without them it is not viable. This was dropped during a visit to the Czech Republic, along with Poland and France itself, one of the few European countries that has shown a firm interest in new nuclear facilities.
In the final communiqué of the meeting, the participating countries call on multinational development banks, financial institutions and regional organizations to "consider financing nuclear energy" and, when determining clean investments, "classify" it with "other low- or zero-emission energy sources".
"To decarbonize we need electricity: a lot," Breton said at the start of the conference, held at the OECD's Paris headquarters. He added: "Energy efficiency measures and massive investments in renewables will help, of course, but we know it won't be enough. That is why nuclear energy will play a central role." The commissioner made it clear that for this "public intervention is needed" and called on the European Investment Bank (EIB), "which supports European Union policies, including climate policies" to "consider its support for nuclear energy projects." So far, renewables are the focus of the EIB's energy financing. The body is in the midst of electing a new president, a process in which French support seems fundamental.
France is full of nuclear power plants
The two-day meeting in the French capital, which concluded on Friday and took place almost entirely behind closed doors, served countries with nuclear industry to show muscle. It was a question of demonstrating to nations such as Germany or Spain – which have closed their plants or have a clear closure timetable – that nuclear energy has not become obsolete. On the contrary: the goal, they say, must be to mobilize efforts to resuscitate this industry, cooperating on technology, innovation and staff training. In addition to ministers and representatives of twenty countries, leaders of companies in the sector participated.
A report by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), the agency attached to the OECD that sponsored the meeting, together with the French Ministry of Energy Transition, points out that to reach the goal of zero emissions in 2050 "requires tripling the nuclear fleet".
The French government: "Nuclear is back"
"Clearly, nuclear is back," French Energy Transition Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said at the opening of the conference on Thursday. "Nuclear power is an important asset to both our energy security and our climate commitments."
In her defense of atomic energy, Pannier-Runacher said "a decarbonization strategy" based solely on renewables "poses real problems." He cited "the intermittent nature of renewable energies", which, unlike nuclear energy, "does not allow to respond to demand in a piloted manner". And he argued that, in the context of the war in Ukraine, energy autonomy has become a "strategic" question to which atomic autonomy allows to answer: "We will not be able to limit climate warming to 1.5 degrees [compared to the pre-industrial era] without nuclear energy."
In the EU, France has promoted a nuclear energy alliance that has 12 members – Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Sweden – and two observers, Belgium and Italy. Poland, the country that depends most on coal (by far the most polluting source of electricity), has just unveiled its plans to start up its first nuclear power plant.
Even though he considers a joint strategy for atomic energy in Europe "necessary", Henryk Anglart, professor of nuclear engineering at the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology, does not believe that will be the case. On the other hand, he does note a notable change of tone in some countries: there are, he says, the cases already mentioned in France and Poland, but also those of the United Kingdom, Finland or Sweden.
Shortage of builders
"With states short of money and the capacity of the sector stretched to the limit, it doesn't seem that the fundamental ingredients for a revival are on the table," says Mycle Schneider, a German consultant and environmentalist who has spent most of his career in France. He focuses, above all, on the absence of companies with experience in the sector: "The European [nuclear] industry is simply non-existent today. In the last 30 years only two reactors have been started and one of them, Flamanville 3 [precisely, in France] is still under construction, with a delay of about 12 years compared to the initial schedule: what was a project to demonstrate its competence has become a demonstration of incompetence and cost overruns, "he says by email.
Framatome – formerly known as Areva, the iconic French developer of nuclear power plants par excellence – is a subsidiary of the electricity company EDF, recently nationalized and which, Schneider recalls, accumulates a net debt of 65,000 million euros. "Other potential reactor builders in Europe?" he asks rhetorically. "Westinghouse went bankrupt in 2017 and its current business is [nuclear] fuel and plant decommissioning services: a safe and promising market," he slips sarcastically. "Chinese developers CNNC and CGN are blacklisted by the U.S., and that makes it virtually impossible for them to work in Europe. And the Korean Kepco is heavily in debt, she has never worked here, and her only [international] experience is a project in the UAE in conditions unimaginable in Europe."
The future of nuclear power in emerging countries
"No wonder the EU and many European countries are seriously considering nuclear as an option. It's logical. But I don't see it starting to build: the future of this energy is in China, India, Korea and other emerging countries. There is a consensus that the future of nuclear energy does not depend on Europe," says Alejandro Zurita, former head of international cooperation for nuclear research at Euratom. "European utilities are not at all interested in building nuclear power plants because of the financial and economic risk that could be produced by possible changes in political or regulatory contexts during construction."
"Nuclear energy is a key piece in the European energy infrastructure, providing about half of the emission-free electricity," counters Jacopo Buongiorno, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who points to the east of the continent as a key place for its future development: "Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia already have plants or are planning new ones. That leads me to think about a return of nuclear to Europe in the next five or ten years."
Both Buongiorno and Zurita are among those who believe that atomic energy is not at odds with renewables, but that both are "complementary". "Nuclear offers a stable supply 24 hours a day, filling the gaps of solar and wind, which are cheaper," slips the first. "The debate is still anchored 30 years ago, when the dilemma was between nuclear and renewables. This is no longer the case: nuclear has its risks and the problem of waste, but it is clear that it limits CO₂ emissions and that it is compatible with solar and wind", completes the second. "The future is renewable, there is no doubt and the EU's commitment in that sense is very good, but that does not mean that we have to close the plants in operation, as Germany has done."
In the world today there are 440 reactors pouring electricity into the grid, and another 45 more under construction. Since December 2019, just before the pandemic, 29 reactors have begun to be built around the world: 18 in China and another 11 by Russian companies in countries such as India, Egypt, Turkey and Russia itself. The comparison with renewables, on the other hand, is hardly sustainable: China, the country that has bet the most on atomic, connected just over two gigawatts of this technology to the electricity grid, compared to 125 of solar and wind.
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