For decades misleading statements, half-truths or, quite simply, fiction about nuclear energy have been communicated to the general public. These myths have often been quoted uncritically or unchallenged, which has not helped to separate fact from fiction. Citizens must have access to the facts, so that they can make an informed judgment about what is the world’s largest source of low-carbon base-load electricity. It’s time that the record was set straight.
Click on the topics below and discover the true facts about nuclear energy.
Economics and competitiveness
Opponents of nuclear energy sometimes use the argument that nuclear generation is more expensive than other forms of energy generation. But a joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency concludes that nuclear energy costs remain “in line” with those of other energy technologies.
The study, Projected Costs of Generating Electricity 2015, also says nuclear technologies have costs that are “roughly on a par” with those reported in a similar 2010 study, “thus undermining the growing narrative that nuclear costs continue to increase globally”.
The study estimates that the average levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for a nuclear station is comparable to that for coal and lower than that of a natural gas-fired power station. The levelised cost is the long-term price at which the electricity produced by a nuclear station will have to be sold at for the investor to cover all their costs.
Despite high capital costs, nuclear energy still compares favourably with the cheapest form of renewable energy: onshore wind. The study estimates the LCOE for a nuclear station, which has been upgraded in order to extend its operational duration, falls at between €23 per MWh and €26 per MWh. This compares “favourably with other electricity generation sources and should deserve attention”, the report says.
There are other factors that need to be taken into account. A nuclear power plant can operate at a high capacity for up to 60 years, keeping overall lifetime costs low. A 2013 report by the IEA concluded that nuclear energy has “the best potential capacity factor and the longest plant economic lifetime”. And the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant is factored into the final cost profile of a project before it is started.
Nuclear is needed for reliable, long-term power that cannot be guaranteed by other technologies. The price of uranium – the fuel used by nuclear reactors – accounts for only around 15% of the final cost of nuclear energy, ensuring stable and affordable electricity prices. Uranium is abundant and cheap, which means nuclear energy is resistant to fuel price shocks and disruptions in supply.
There are other, more localised economic benefits of nuclear energy. Europe exports nuclear technology and services globally, and the European nuclear industry supports around 800,000 jobs. Building a single nuclear plant can create up to 25,000 jobs during construction and 900 jobs throughout its operational lifetime. The nuclear industry is a vital contributor to the sustainability of local, regional and national economies.
International Energy Agency and OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency study: https://www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/ElecCost2015SUM.pdf
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Nuclear power’s global expansion is projected to continue in the coming decades, largely because many governments see it as the best available energy source in the fight against climate change.
A 2015 International Atomic Energy Agency report, Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050, says the need to mitigate climate change is a key driver of new nuclear plants.
But other factors indicate that nuclear energy will play an important role in the world’s energy mix in the long run. They include nuclear power’s role in energy supply security, population growth and demand for electricity in the developing world, and the volatility of fossil fuel prices.
Globally, there are 438 nuclear reactors in operation in 29 countries and 70 reactors at various stages of construction. In the EU, there are 129 nuclear reactors operating in 14 Member States, producing 27% of the EU’s electricity.
There are four reactors under construction in the EU: one in France, one in Finland and two in Slovakia. A further 23 nuclear reactors are planned – in the UK, Finland, Romania, Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Bulgaria. In addition at least 10 countries intend to extend the operational duration of their existing plants. The IAEA is also projecting growth in Eastern Europe. The region includes Russia, with nine reactors under construction, as well as Belarus, which is building its first reactors.
Another IAEA report confirms that the fight against climate change is the main reason nuclear power remains strong. The report, Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2015, says renewable energy sources would have to increase at a level “hard to believe” to compensate fully for the use of nuclear energy in the fight against climate change. The report says climate change is one of the most important environmental challenges facing the world.
Nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants during their operation and only very low emissions over their entire life cycle. Nuclear power fosters energy supply security and industrial development by providing electricity reliably at stable and foreseeable prices.
Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050
Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2015’
Security of Supply
Political uncertainty and concerns over the long-term availability of oil and fossil fuels mean the security of our energy supply is in the spotlight. Nuclear power plants are a reliable source of electricity that have been delivering safe energy to the European electricity grid for nearly 60 years. Nuclear reduces our dependence on fossil fuel imports and does not require continuous fuel supplies to operate, allowing countries to develop greater energy independence. What’s more, nuclear plants operate at a high energy performance of around 90% and supply continuously reliable electricity.
The fuel for nuclear reactors is uranium. One of the reasons nuclear is seen as a secure form of energy is that the quantity of uranium needed to produce a given amount of electricity is extremely low, and nuclear operators are able to store sufficient uranium fuel assemblies on-site for years of operation. A 1000-megawatt pressurised water reactor consumes less than 30 tonnes of fuel a year while a coal plant with similar capacity would consume around 4.3 million tonnes of coal. And because the fuel assemblies can be stored on-site, nuclear is relatively impervious to supply constraints.
The EU imports uranium from a range of reliable sources. Euratom Supply Agency data for 2014 shows EU utilities imported from: Kazakhstan (27%), Russia (18%), Niger (15%), Australia (14%), Canada (13%), and others (13%).
According to an OECD Nuclear Energy Agency report, Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand, sufficient uranium resources exist to support the continued use of nuclear power and significant growth in nuclear capacity in the long term – for over 120 years.
The development and introduction of fast breeder reactors, which generate more fissile material than they consume, would multiply by 50 the amount of electricity generated per tonne of uranium.
Most governments recognise the role of renewables in the energy mix, but they also recognise that nuclear power is more effective when it comes to ensuring reliable electricity supply. For European industry, stable, affordable and reliable electricity supply is of paramount importance for economic growth and job creation.
Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand: https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2014/7209-uranium-2014.pdf
An historic climate agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 saw 195 countries adopt a universal, legally binding global deal that will see a progressive shift away from fossil fuels. It was the first major multilateral deal of the 21st century and set out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.
The EU said the Paris Agreement sent “a clear signal” that the global transition to clean energy is here to stay and resources have to shift away from polluting fossil fuels.
Nuclear energy, which provides almost a third of Europe’s electricity and produces 50% of the EU’s low-carbon electricity, can play a significant role in the fight against climate change.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged in a 2014 report that nuclear energy offers the advantage of being a low-carbon technology. Every year, nuclear power avoids an amount of CO2 emissions equivalent to that from all cars in Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the UK combined. The IPCC said scenarios that are likely to maintain warming at below 2°C include “more rapid improvements in energy efficiency and a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply” from renewable energy and nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy produces none of the pollutants such as nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide that cause acid rain and damage the ozone layer. Nuclear can be used in conjunction with renewables to provide an energy mix that is reliable, affordable and low-carbon. Sweden, France, Switzerland and Norway are the only European countries producing more than 80% low-carbon electricity and except for Norway the other countries do this by using a combination of nuclear and renewables. The IPCC has recognised nuclear as an “effective greenhouse gas mitigation option” with life cycle emissions “comparable to most renewables”. Out of the IPCC’s 1,200 possible scenarios for the limiting of global warming to 2°C, only eight exclude the use of nuclear power
This is because nuclear power stations produce lifecycle CO2 emissions per kWh comparable to wind energy and significantly less than solar. According to the IPCC, Nuclear energy emits 30 times less CO2 than natural gas, 65 less than coal, three times less than solar energy. The European nuclear energy sector avoids 700 million tonnes of CO2eq per year that otherwise might be emitted into the atmosphere.
Nuclear can have a long-term impact in the fight against climate change. It is a part of the EU’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), aiming to develop advanced energy technologies crucial to fighting climate change. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in France aims to show that that nuclear fusion – the power source of the sun and stars – is technically feasible as a source of energy. Nuclear fusion is one of the options for generating large amounts of carbon-free energy.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 report:http://ar5-syr.ipcc.ch/ipcc/ipcc/resources/pdf/IPCC_SynthesisReport.pdf
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Safety is the European nuclear industry’s priority. Maintaining a high level of safety is non-negotiable for the long-term operation of existing nuclear power plants, for new-build projects and for gaining public acceptance of and confidence in nuclear technology. The safety of all nuclear facilities is governed by stringent laws that are overseen by an independent regulator in every country that has a nuclear programme or is embarking on one.
After the March 2011 accident at Fukushima-Daiichi, which was caused by the combined force of an earthquake and tsunami, and not by any malfunction at the plant itself, the nuclear industry carried out stress tests to make sure nothing similar could happen anywhere else. The tests measured the ability of nuclear facilities to withstand damage from hazards such as earthquakes, flooding, terrorist attacks or aircraft collisions. Not a single nuclear power plant in Europe was recommended for closure as a result of this process, which testified to the high overall level of safety at Europe’s nuclear installations. National regulators published national action plans (NAcP) in order to implement the recommendations of the safety assessments and nuclear operators are in charge of carrying out the required safety upgrades.
The EU said the tests found that the safety standards of nuclear power plants in Europe were high. In 2015 the European Commission said there was a good level of compliance with rules laid out in Europe’s Nuclear Safety Directive, which was updated as a result of Fukushima and the stress tests.
All operators of nuclear plants plan for events “beyond design bases”, which means nuclear plants are designed to cope with the sort of natural phenomena that might occur only once in many thousands of years. Coastal nuclear sites are protected against rising sea levels, storm surges and flooding. Every year operators invest a huge amount of capital in improving safety at their plants.
All nuclear facilities are operated under the strict control of the national regulatory authorities, who make sure operators are making the investments needed to guarantee safety at their plants. A strong and independent regulator is the cornerstone of a safe nuclear power programme.
At EU level, the Safety Directive adopted in 2009 and revised in 2013 establishes a framework for nuclear safety based on the principle of the further harmonisation of safety standards at nuclear installations across the EU. At international level, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s safety standards provide a system of fundamentals and guidelines for ensuring safety. The standards reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety at nuclear plants and are applicable throughout the entire lifetime of facilities and activities.
Producing electricity safely is – and will always be – the priority. The nuclear industry is committed to continuous improvement at all its facilities and in Europe has an excellent safety record established over more than half a century of operation.
Innovation, research and development
Continuous innovation, research and development in the nuclear industry has seen a steady improvement in the operation of existing nuclear plants that has made them more economic, more reliable, and able to operate past their planned operating lifetimes. Regulators, scientists and industry executives say Europe’s fleet of nuclear power plants could run long past the 40-year operational duration planned decades ago. The European Commission has said the average extension period for nuclear plants in the EU is expected by most national regulators to be 10 to 20 years.
The EC has underlined the importance of continuous R&D. The 2016 Illustrative Programme for Nuclear Energy, or PINC, said the EU must maintain its technological leadership in the nuclear domain, since it will give business opportunities for European companies and help support growth, jobs and competitiveness. Initiatives suggested by the EC include the deployment of advanced nuclear systems such as Generation-IV reactors, small modular reactors (SMRs), and progress at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction at Cadarache in France.
There are already 25 nuclear-related research projects financed by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever with nearly €110 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020). Existing R&D projects in Europe include Myrrha (Belgium), the first-ever prototype particle accelerator-driven reactor; Allegro (Central Europe), a gas-cooled fast breeder reactor prototype; and Pallas (the Netherlands), a high-flux research reactor that will produce more than 60 percent of Europe’s medical radioisotopes, which are used for treating cancer.
This R&D is necessary because new, environmentally sustainable forms of electricity will be required to meet the aspirations of a growing world population. No single technology will fulfil this demand. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and a mix of power sources will be needed to meet the challenges of energy security, sustainable development and environmental protection. Future energy supply options may comprise fossil fuels, renewables nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.
Most of us don’t realise it, but nuclear technology is part of our everyday lives as a result of medical, agricultural and industrial applications. It is used in the fight against diseases such as malaria, and in the management of animal livestock systems. Nuclear technology is also a key element in the production of medical isotopes and the development of therapeutic and diagnostic procedures which help save thousands of lives every day.
Nuclear research reactors are used in nuclear medicine, which uses radiation to provide diagnostic information about the functioning of a person’s specific organs, or to treat them. Radiotherapy can be used to treat some medical conditions, especially cancer, using radiation to weaken or destroy particular targeted cells. One person out of two world-wide will benefit from nuclear medicine during his/her life. Europe has about 5,300 nuclear medicine physicians, conducting 10 million diagnostic procedures and 220,000 therapy treatments every year
The EU supports the secure supply and the establishment of a sustainable supply chain of radioactive medical isotopes and has already undertaken several initiatives to respond to the critical situation regarding the supply of radioisotopes for medicine. A European Observatory on the Supply of Medical Radioisotopes has been established, aimed at developing policies to secure the long-term supply of these crucial radioisotopes.
Nuclear medicine helps provide unique information about disease in the human body that is unattainable through other imaging procedures. Europe’s role is a critical one. The BR2 reactor in Belgium, the Petten reactor in The Netherlands, Osiris in France, Maria in Poland and Řež in the Czech Republic between them produce about 20 percent of the global share.
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Waste management and decommissioning
The global nuclear industry produces 54 grams out of 1.36 tonnes of waste– that’s about one quarter of a cup – of radioactive waste per person per year. Short- and intermediate-lived radioactive waste (this includes tools, clothing, filters and contaminated material from reactor maintenance or decommissioning) accounts for around 90% of the total volume of waste, while long-lived waste (spent reactor fuel) accounts for the remaining 10%. One 1000-megawatt nuclear reactor produces about 27 tonnes of radioactive waste a year, compared to 400,000 tonnes of ash and 10,000 tonnes of sulphur from a coal power plant of the same power output. Civil nuclear waste from nuclear power plants has never caused any harm, nor posed an environmental hazard, in over 50 years of the nuclear power industry.
High-level waste is kept underwater (because water is an excellent “shield”) for a few years until the radiation decays to levels that can be shielded by concrete in large storage casks. The final disposal of this spent fuel is a key topic in the nuclear industry. Options for final disposal include deep geologic storage and recycling. Deep geological repositories are expected to be operating by 2025 in Finland, Sweden and France. Other nuclear EU Member States are planning their own deep repositories or are looking for shared solutions. Low-level waste is permanently disposed of in shallow underground disposal facilities.
In the EU, each country is responsible for managing its own radioactive waste and spent fuel and must implement a national legislative, regulatory and organizational framework to this end. The safe and efficient management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel is assured at all times and the European nuclear industry is subject to legal provisions establishing a Community-wide framework for the responsible and safe management of radioactive waste.
Waste is also generated by the decommissioning of nuclear plants. The European nuclear industry has extensive experience in decommissioning nuclear facilities and decommissioning costs are covered via a fund built up over decades from the electricity sold during the plant’s operation. Modern nuclear facilities are designed with decommissioning plans already in place. The increasing standardisation of new reactor designs will help this even further.
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