Non-Military Security

Nuclear resurgence in the EU?

Timotej Kováčik

Slovakia, France and Belgium have announced the construction of new nuclear units or extending the operation of their nuclear power plants (NPP). Will Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its consequences lead to a nuclear resurgence in the EU? 

Until the start of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the volume of electricity generated from nuclear power in the EU had been declining significantly. Between 2006 and 2021, total nuclear power generation in the EU fell by 20% and a further 17% between 2021 and 2022 alone. Negative attitudes towards using and constructing NPPs had begun much earlier in many countries, but the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan was a critical moment. At that time, Germany announced a final phase-out of all NPPs in the country by the end of 2022, which the federal government eventually postponed until April 2023, precisely because of the war in Ukraine. Nuclear power is not used in Italy, Lithuania or Austria, and other countries, such as Spain, have plans to shut down their NPPs completely. France, one of the most nuclear-powered countries in the world, also faced an unexpected problem in 2022, generating 23% less electricity from nuclear plants compared to 2021. There were several reasons for this. Several plants were undergoing six-month-lasting inspections; corrosion issues were found on pipes of cooling circuits; heatwaves caused low river levels, which affected plant cooling; workers’ strikes affected the restart of NPPs that had already shut down.

In addition to the concerns about the safety of NPPs, the EU’s massive decarbonisation policy, which has hit its limits and is not sufficiently developed, also plays a role in decommissioning atomic power as a source of energy and electricity. Although the EU has included nuclear in the so-called green taxonomy, it does not consider it a green energy source, but only a low-carbon one. The same applies to gas. The green sources, i.e. wind, water and sun, are the main instruments for achieving the EU’s climate goals. However, the problem with renewables, apart from their high investment costs, is their volatility, i.e., the unstable electricity supply to the grid. This is where nuclear energy plays a crucial role, providing a stable source of electricity with approximately the same electricity supply to the grid throughout the day (base load). If a country does not have nuclear power plants and suddenly runs out of renewables, coal-fired power plants as the most emission-intensive source, or expensive gas-fired power plants have to take their place.

After the start of the war in Ukraine, some countries have started to look to nuclear power as a stable source of energy instead of gas-fired power plants, as the record-high prices for natural gas caused skyrocketing electricity prices to historic highs last year. In the EU, several events have taken place in recent days and weeks, which may signal the dawn of nuclear power in Europe.

Slovakia announced that the gradual increase of the power output of the third unit of the Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) has started. Most recently, load tests have been carried out at 75% capacity. It is a further step towards its 100% output, planned at the end of 2023. Once it is in commercial operation, it will make Slovakia an exporter of electricity and ensure its self-sufficiency in electricity production. A fourth unit of the Mochovce NPP is currently under construction and is scheduled for completion in 2024. Each unit will individually cover around 13% of Slovakia’s electricity consumption.

Belgium is one of the countries that has also scheduled a complete phase-out of NPPs from the energy mix. However, due to the changing geopolitical situation, which is also linked to the supply of energy raw materials, Belgium has recently decided to extend the lifespan of its two most recent “nukes” by ten years. This means that the initial phase-out of the nuclear power plants has been postponed until 2035. The two reactors, Tihange 3 and Doel 4, are due to be restarted in winter 2025, following the final conclusion of the agreement between the Belgian government and Engie.

In recent years, small modular reactors (SMR) have received massive positive feedback for nuclear power. They are smaller versions of traditional reactors and should be simpler and faster to build, although at the expense of their lower power. The Czech Republic has announced the construction of the country’s first SMR. It is supposed to be operational by 2032, which is an ambitious plan compared to traditional NPPs, which often take more than 15 years to build. Its cost is as yet unknown. Traditionally pro-nuclear France has also announced the news. The local energy company EDF announced the start of the administrative processes for constructing two new nuclear reactors with an installed capacity of 1,670 MW. These reactors are to be located at the existing Penly NPP and could be completed between 2035 and 2037. Estimation relies on the upgraded technology of the EPR2 reactors because the construction of the predecessor, the EPR reactor, has been delayed and made more expensive in a number of cases. Another French nuclear unit, Flamanville 3, was overpriced by more than 300 million EUR and delayed by more than ten years.

Therefore, nuclear energy is certainly not forgotten in the EU; on the contrary, there is a possible renaissance in many countries. This is proven by the so-called nuclear alliance of 11 EU countries in favour of using nuclear in the energy mix, which France initiated in February 2023 and of which Slovakia is a member. The aim is to cooperate more closely in nuclear energy, to strengthen research and innovation or to promote joint projects, for instance, in the field of SMRs. Yet, the alliance’s presence in the EU Council is in confrontation with the group of “Friends of Renewables,” which includes countries such as Germany, Austria and other anti-nuclear countries. The diplomatic tricks are also shown by France’s (dis)invitation to the “Friends of Renewables” meeting on 11 July during the energy ministers’ meeting in Valladolid, Spain, despite having been promised to attend. Austria, the chair of pro-renewables countries, justified it by changing the nature of the meeting from a meeting of countries sharing the same values of renewables to a gathering of countries with the same views on the role of renewables in electricity market reform. It is thus clear that the view of countries such as Germany or Austria towards nuclear energy will remain the same and that the EU will continue to have different opinions on the role of nuclear in the energy mix of European countries. However, an alliance fighting for the recognition of nuclear as a green technology may convince countries such as Italy, the Netherlands or Estonia that are not opposed to its use. Atomic energy is seeing better days after the Russian attack on Ukraine, and more and more countries are considering or implementing its use in their energy mix.

Photo credit:

This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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