Europe’s atomic age continues

Germany is continuing to phase out its nuclear plants as per the decision made after Fukushima. Yet other countries are sticking to nuclear and the European Commission predicts this kind of energy will remain prominent even in 2050.

Good news for nuclear engineers: the European Commission (EC) has just predicted that nuclear will be part of the European energy mix in 2050 to an extent not very different from today: between 10-15 per cent of the total.

The prediction appears in the EC’s just-published new Reference Scenario on developments in energy and transport, and is relevant ahead of the UN climate conference in Marrakesh next week.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster five years ago created a huge public opinion backlash in Europe against nuclear power. Germany’s Angela Merkel responded swiftly with an announcement that Germany was to close down all its nuclear power plants in order to transition to renewables. Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland made similar noises.

Laudable, you might say, but renewables have an intermittency problem. Germany’s CO² emissions have reportedly not fallen much, if at all, as energy lost by the shutdown of nuclear reactors has – to a large extent – been replaced by the burning of highly polluting coal.

Perhaps we are seeing a backlash against the backlash. China is doing its own thing, having built six of the eight new nuclear plants in the world last year, and being responsible for eight of the ten reactors restarted in 2015. Yet in Europe too, signals sent are showing that nuclear power continues to be important – not just in always-more-pro-nuclear France and Britain. They are still pressing ahead with a new generation of reactors, at Flamanville and Hinkley Point C, but elsewhere even among the nuclear sceptics.

Experts say that the Swiss government is likely to ignore the referendum vote to speed up the closing of its nuclear plants. Germany keeps investing in nuclear research, while Brussels continues to encourage EU research funding to be spent on improving what it proudly says is “Europe’s technological superiority” in reactor design. Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community, is as alive as ever.

Sweden is a good example of a country that has backed away from a previously unequivocal stance to phase out nuclear. The country changed course after the government realised the commitment to phrase out nuclear power plants – where Sweden was second only to France in the take-up – clashed somewhat with its commitment to move the country to run entirely on renewables by 2040.

The Swedes then realised they would face some of the same problem of intermittency as everyone else. Non-intermittent and carbon-free nuclear is back on board again, with the announcement that the phaseout and its replacement by renewables now a “long term” goal and the 2040 cutoff just a symbolic target. “This 2040 date is a goal, not a cut-off date that would prohibit nuclear power and it does not mean either the end or the closure of nuclear power,” energy minister Ibrahim Baylan told reporters recently. “This is a traditional Swedish compromise.”

The Swedish government announced the repeal of a tax on nuclear energy that severely cut into generating companies’ profits. They also opened up a legal regime that will allow utilities to build up to 10 reactors on existing sites to replace the ones coming offline. There will be no subsidies of nuclear, yet Swedish company Vattenfall demonstrated its confidence in the decision by immediately providing safety upgrades to three of its nuclear plants to enable them to operate well past 2020.

There is a lot of debate in Europe on whether or not renewables can power the entire grid. Germany is going all out on the bet that it is, while Sweden is saying that nuclear power – maybe through a new generation of smaller, modular plants is a useful and extremely important measure in the support of this long-term idealistic goal. Brussels, in predicting a continued role for nuclear power, seems to be siding with the pragmatic –  some might say hedging – Swedish position.

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