SINCE NOVEMBER 2016, WHEN THE European Commission (EC) outlined its priorities on the clean energy transition, the energy mix in the European Union (EU) has changed, meaning that low-carbon energy sources are now leading the EU’s electricity mix.

The EC says that the “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package of measures includes rules that will decarbonise the EU’s energy market, while also making it more competitive globally.

The EC intends the clean energy package to provide the “stable legislative framework needed to facilitate the clean energy transition, thereby taking a significant step towards the creation of the Energy Union” which is “aimed at enabling the EU to deliver on its Paris Agreement commitments.”

Power generated from nuclear now accounts for around 30% of the total electricity mix in the EU, according to the European Commission. There are currently 126 reactors in operation in 14 EU Member States.

“In October 2014, the European Council agreed on a 2030 climate and energy policy framework for the EU, setting an ambitious economy-wide domestic target of an at least 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for 2030,” according to Massimo Garribba, the director for nuclear energy, safety and ITER at the European Commission. “The main sources of low-carbon energy, nuclear and renewables, already provide more than half of the electricity needed in the EU,” Garribba says.

The EC says that the proposals in the clean energy package are “intended to help the EU energy sector become more stable, more competitive, and more sustainable, and fit for the 21st century.”

It says that, “with a view to stimulating investment in the clean energy transition, the package has three main goals: putting energy efficiency first, achieving global leadership in renewable energies and providing a fair deal for consumers.” The EC says that by 2019, the Energy Union “must no longer be a policy, but a reality.”

Yves Desbazaille, the newly appointed director-general of the European nuclear industry trade association Foratom, says that nuclear energy contributes to the three key objectives laid out in the EU’s Energy Union initiative: security of supply, competitiveness and environmental sustainability.

Desbazaille says that the EU “should continue to use all the best tools available,” including nuclear energy, to achieve its low-carbon goals.

However, it is not clear what effect the UK’s withdrawal from the EU (so-called ‘Brexit’) will have on the bloc’s attitude towards nuclear. The choice of generation capacity is left to Member States, rather than being dictated by the EU, but it is heavily influenced by measures such as EU Directives on Renewables. The UK is the only Member State with a strong nuclear replacement and expansion plan and it has been an advocate of retaining the nuclear option. Its departure will remove a counter to strong antinuclear campaigners in some Member States. Without the UK’s nuclear interest the bloc’s support for nuclear – already no more than lukewarm and fading as the falling cost of renewables reduce its importance as a low-carbon source – is likely to cool further.

Cost of decarbonisation

The EC estimates that €379 billion will be required annually from 2021 to achieve the goal of decarbonising the EU economy. “By encouraging cross-border cooperation and mobilising public and private investment in the clean energy sector,” the EC says that the clean energy package of measures “has the potential to be good for the economy, generating an estimated 900,000 jobs and an increase of up to 1% in GDP over the next decade.”

Garribba noted that renewables and nuclear energy have several characteristics in common, with high capital costs and low operating costs. He added that “in the current low wholesale price environment, with high volatility of electricity prices, this represents a significant challenge in securing the necessary investment on the capital markets with a view to building future generation capacity.”

Desbazaille added that the price of carbon emissions must increase, encouraging investments in low-carbon technologies, adding that reform of the European emissions trading scheme (ETS) could be a “key instrument” to help decarbonise the EU’s economy.

Nuclear generation is not explicitly mentioned in the package, and the European Commission says that “each EU country decides alone whether to include nuclear power in its energy mix or not.”