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Nuclear – the “no regrets” option

Mar 15, 2022

Andrei Goicea, Policy Director

In March 2022, the European Commission launched its communication entitled ‘REPowerEU’. This communication outlined the plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030 due to recent geopolitical developments. It also tackles energy affordability as well as our European decarbonisation goals. By omitting nuclear from the proposals, the Commission risks being unable to deliver on its own promises, potentially threatening the security of the European energy mix.

Through the RePowerEU communication, the Commission is trying to propose solutions to 3 issues that are currently impacting our economy:

  1. Affordability: there must be a concentrated effort to curb high energy prices for consumers and industry
  2. Security of energy supply: our access to energy must not be disrupted by external geopolitical developments
  3. Decarbonisation: relating to the proposed measures of the European Green Deal in general and the Fit for 55 package in particular

These three issues are incredibly urgent. Ignoring them will likely continue to negatively impact our economy not only in short-term, but also in the medium- and long-term. Furthermore, considering the urgency of all 3 matters, we cannot prioritize one at the expense of others. A balanced approach is required, and it is for this reason that I am concerned about the Commission’s proposal.

Key to my concerns is the fact that the Commission is hedging its bets entirely on the massive deployment of renewables and stronger energy efficiency measures in order to achieve the decarbonisation targets. Unfortunately, their proposed solutions do not adequately address all three of the aforementioned points.

Firstly, on affordability, despite the claim that implementing more renewables will decrease the energy prices it would actually increase the costs for consumers. This is because renewables suffer from variability (i.e., when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, they do not produce energy). Therefore, when we build renewables, we must also deploy additional complementary solutions such as storage or hydrogen for back-up purposes. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that these solutions are neither technologically nor economically mature. It is simply not possible to deal with renewable variability in a way that will keep energy prices low for consumers. An energy source which is not affected by variability – such as nuclear – would help to mitigate this issue.

Secondly, on security of supply, relying on renewables is problematic because they are weather dependent. As mentioned previously, in the absence of wind or sun, the energy system might encounter difficulties. This means that despite a vast build-up of renewables, Europe may still be reliant on energy imports. Furthermore, a less-discussed topic concerns the issue of raw materials. In order to build renewables, we require vast quantities of raw materials which are not available in the EU. Some countries have a ‘quasi-monopoly’ on some critical materials and so only pursuing the construction of renewables may cause us to run into security of equipment supply issues. A diversity of energy sources would help to mitigate this issue.

Thirdly, on decarbonisation, if the Commission does not alter its strategy, then fossil fuels will continue to play an active role in the European energy system. As previously mentioned, variable renewables will fail to meet the demand for energy 24/7. To compensate for this variability, fossil fuels will have to be used as the Commission will not have adequately prepared a low-carbon, complimentary solution to deal with the shortcomings of renewables. Without question, this threatens decarbonisation efforts. A low carbon, dispatchable energy source – i.e., nuclear – would help to mitigate this issue.

In this context, it’s rather shameful that policymakers continue to avoid the topic of nuclear. This was already prevalent in the Fit for 55 Package where nuclear is rarely mentioned, and this trend has seemingly continued with the Commission’s REPowerEU communication. How can we talk about REPower-ing the EU economy while omitting nuclear, which currently provides around a quarter of the electricity used in the EU?

Let’s be clear – nuclear is no panacea. Nevertheless, it brings a lot of benefits to the system and responds positively to all 3 of the key issues that currently dominate the agendas of policymakers.[1] It must continue to account for a least a quarter of the electricity mix if we are serious about a well-functioning EU energy system. Some Member States understand this very well and will continue to rely on nuclear, so why can’t the Commission see its value?

In our current precarious times, there is no time for experiments nor should we risk relying on uncharted solutions. We must be clear on the fact that this could lead to an instability of the energy system and might fail to deliver the necessary results in time. An example of this is the 2011 “Energy Roadmap 2050”. In this roadmap, Carbon Capture Storage was the promised superstar. Yet, 10 years later, the technology has fallen far short of expectations. History threatens to repeat itself.

We need smart policymaking, and we need it fast. Nuclear must be considered in all the upcoming medium- and long-term analyses which are used for the new legislative proposals. The Commission must value nuclear in accordance with its effectiveness in mitigating the three key issues. This will incentivise the Member States to consider this technology and extend the lifetime of the existing nuclear fleet (where rigorous nuclear safety inspections allow for it). In addition, we must set our sights on supporting the development of new reactors, including small modular reactors and advanced nuclear technologies.

[1] Ensuring an affordable and stable energy transition

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