One of the indirect consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 is renewed debate on the future of nuclear energy in Europe. The high energy prices that plagued Europe in 2022 and the fact that European Union (EU) countries were dependent on gas supplies from Russia and had to look elsewhere for more expensive alternatives contributed to this. Yet even today, some countries continue to move away from nuclear, while others are forming coalitions and planning to build new reactors. Where does European nuclear power stand at the beginning of 2024?
Spain Plans to Phase Out Nuclear Power Plants, Following Germany’s example
Despite the positive developments in nuclear energy, 2023 ended with one piece of negative news: Spain has announced the planned closure of all seven of its nuclear power plants. It intends to start the decommissioning phase in 2027, and all the ‘nukes’ should be taken off the grid by 2035. Spain is thus the latest country to announce its intention to end the use of fission energy. Germany closed all its nuclear power plants in April 2023.
Spain’s move is not a surprise. The fate of nuclear power in the country was one of the campaign issues in the Spanish snap parliamentary elections in July 2023. While then Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the left-wing PSOE party was pushing for the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, his main counterpart Alberto Núñez Feijóo of the right-wing PP was talking about the continuation and potential construction of new plants. Although the PP won the elections, the government was reconstituted by Pedro Sánchez with the support of far-left and separatist parties. In addition to this political background, the decision is unsurprising because of Spain’s long-standing position favouring renewables. In the last ten years, Spain has seen a significant increase in energy and electricity production from so-called green sources. Spain is now the European leader in electricity generation from renewable sources, ending 2023 with a 50.8% share of green electricity generated.
A coalition of pro-nuclear countries pushes for more nuclear in the EU
Let’s get back to positive news on nuclear. At the beginning of 2023, a coalition of states was formed at the level of ministers of member states in the Council of the European Union, with the agenda of promoting greater use of nuclear energy in the energy mix of EU countries. The coalition is led by traditionally pro-nuclear France, which produces the most energy (41%) and electricity (69%) from nuclear in the EU. It is essential to point out the distinction between energy and electricity production, with energy including, for example, heat generation. The coalition of pro-nuclear states is made up of 11 states in total, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Representatives of non-coalition countries, such as Italy, which currently has no nuclear power plants, also attended some ministerial meetings.
France is doing its homework honestly as the leading representative of the coalition. Agnès Pannier-Runacher, Minister for Ecological Transition, recently visited the Czech Republic to promote mutual cooperation in nuclear energy. France also signed a joint declaration with Sweden, whose government has succeeded in pushing through legislation in the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) to build two new reactors by 2035 and another ten reactors by 2045. The French state-owned company EDF and the French ambassador to Slovakia have also expressed their willingness to cooperate with Slovakia in the supply chain for new nuclear fuel. Slovakia is seeking to move away from nuclear fuel from Russia and is looking for alternatives from Western producers. In addition, Slovakia has managed to get the third unit of the Mochovce nuclear power plant into 100% operation in autumn 2023, covering about 13% of annual electricity consumption. The fourth unit of the Mochovce NPP should be operational in 2024. Slovakia currently generates more than 60% of its electricity from nuclear power, ranking second in the EU. The French are also considering expanding their nuclear fleet and would like to build eight new reactors by 2050, as well as extend the lifetime of the current ones, which can be done through temporary shutdowns and technical improvements. Poland plans to build its first nuclear reactor, and the Czech Republic has similar intentions.
In addition, the pro-nuclear coalition is calling on the EU to recognise nuclear as one of the means by which Europe’s ambitious climate goals – reducing emissions by half by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050 – can be achieved. At present, renewable energy and energy efficiency are the only forms of sustainable resources. A directive in favour of the use of nuclear for the decarbonisation of those countries that use this energy must come from the European Commission (EC). However, in order for it to come into force, it must go through a process that does not bypass the European Parliament, which was once seen as a problem, as nuclear was rejected by the Green faction but also by centrist MEPs from among the most numerous European factions, the EPP, S&D and Renew. However, there has also been a change of mood, with the passage at the end of 2023 of an initiative supporting the development of small modular reactors, which are seen as the future of nuclear power.
Promoting a conscious and pro-nuclear approach is pragmatic, even for countries that have not yet used nuclear power. As a supporting source of stable energy, nuclear would be an excellent complement to renewables not only in energy production but also in electricity production. Both types are in the cheaper category under the current pricing model, the so-called merit order effect. Of course, both types of energy have challenges ahead, whether it is nuclear fuel storage, reactor obsolescence, or energy storage from intermittent sources (solar, wind). However, technological and scientific progress gives hope that the problems will diminish sooner and solutions to these challenges will be found. The shift in sentiment at the level of EU institutions is a welcome change, as some politicians’ demonisation of nuclear energy has not been helpful to the EU’s climate goals, which have been the responsibility of the European Commission. The Commission, headed by President Ursula von der Leyen and Estonian Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson, has recognised that nuclear is an opportunity, not a problem, in the current geopolitical situation. There is a need to involve nuclear resources much more and to finance the development of new technologies so that the whole Union can benefit from their advantages. The trend in this respect is reasonable and appears safe from being undermined. The standards for the safety and operation of nuclear power plants are unrivalled in the EU, and there is also public support for nuclear power. Greater confidence in and promotion of nuclear is one of the few positives brought about by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and the EU can thank Putin for this wake-up call that will strengthen its energy security.