NUCLEAR POWER HAS PROVEN INDISPENSABLE in the COVID-19 health and economic crisis despite a temporary decline in power output in most countries.

This was the key conclusion of participants in a dedicated discussion about innovation in the European nuclear power sector and its international competitiveness set up by the Entretiens Europeen, a pro-nuclear energy European NGO.

The discussion considered how different business sectors could support the European Union’s green recovery plans. A number of countries and organisations participated in the event including Czechia, Finland, France, Poland, Russia, the UK and the European Commission, and it also looked at the role of small modular reactors (SMRs).

The forum thought nuclear power provided a continuous public service during the on-going health and economic crisis, as opposed to intermittent energy sources. According to the forum, moderated by Claude Fischer Herzog, the director of Entretiens Europeen, “it will be impossible to combat climate change, restore growth and achieve widespread prosperity without it [nuclear power], as the sector delivers services in several areas and well beyond the countries where nuclear energy is produced.”

However, forging innovation in nuclear power and making the European SMR sector globally competitive also means that in the medium term the nuclear community has to raise its tone and voice to level up the nuclear community and regain traction in a post-Fukushima environment, according to Massimo Garribba, director general, nuclear energy, at the European Commission.

He said the position in favour of renewables might have gone ‘too far’, but also that there is a “period of silence” now as operators and regulators are looking at security of supply issues such as the availability of operators and crucial staff during the pandemic.

The EU’s Green Deal and COVID-19 recovery plan aims at the long-term and coordinated decarbonisation of power generation, industry, transport and housing in Europe and also creates the prefect time to push for support for SMRs and overall nuclear innovation. The European SMR industry is represented mainly by France and the UK, which are working on their own SMR designs. Czechia and Poland are choosing from international designs to deploy in their countries, while Estonia and Ukraine are interested in deploying SMRs in the medium term.

“To meet EU carbon reduction goals, one needs a full federation of all energy sources,” according to Garribba. He added that nuclear power is mentioned in full in all EC energy policy papers and the PINC [the EC’s Nuclear Illustrative Programme]. Nuclear energy will be “there with its share of the power mix in 2050, similar to what it is today.”

Garribba said, “The way forward for the EU is to undertake a huge [nuclear fleet] replacement policy in order to achieve this and we have put this very clearly on the table”.

System flexibility and load following capabilities are very important if renewables and nuclear are to be complementary in Europe. “This is particularly the case with SMRs, so we need to develop an overall strategy in this area in order to be competitive with China and the US. This is why we [the EU] held a high-level seminar on SMRs in 2019”, said Garribba.

France unveiled its own SMR design in September 2019, called the Nuward. The proposed unit will have a capacity of 300-400MW and will be built by a consortium comprising the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), state power company EDF, Naval Group and TechnicAtome. The French SMR design will be jointly developed by the consortium participants using France’s extensive experience of pressurised water reactor technology.

The planned uptake of SMRs by countries like Poland is also a reminder that some countries may use US SMR designs and not European technology, although Poland has not yet finalised its SMR technology choice.

Poland plans to build between 6GW and 9GW of new nuclear capacity, starting work on its first new plants in 2026, and will aim to complete six plants by 2045, according to the Polish government. Poland is looking at both SMRs and large reactors.

The Czech government has said that it will consider using SMR technology for its new nuclear construction but the country is currently more advanced in its plans to build a new large reactor, Dukovany 5, than it is in SMR development. Its existing Dukovany and Temelin plants are due to end operations in the mid-2030s.

Highest level of nuclear safety

The EU could be proud of having the highest level of nuclear safety in the world, said Garribba, “But, new nuclear power is not low cost at all and it is plagued by delays and cost overruns”.

Europe’s nuclear power advantage is to “secure safety standards in the long run for both the nuclear power industry and the people, as well as organisations, which want to use nuclear power. As a result, we have a vested interest in paying a lot of attention to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle”, said Garribba.

He also said that the discussion of whether nuclear power should be included in the EU’s “taxonomy” of sustainable energy sources that the EU recommends for green energy financing is “due to the fact that not enough attention has been given historically to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. This unnecessarily gave arguments to those who oppose nuclear power”.

He said “So, the issue of nuclear power in the taxonomy is not closed, it is on going. However, at the moment, a joint expert group is looking at if the back end of the fuel cycle can be a source of significant harm or not, as there is a balance of interests in this”. In order to be included in the taxonomy as a sustainable energy source recommended for financing, a power source must “do not significant harm”.

The UK plan

In the UK, which has aligned its decarbonisation strategy with the EU, a new plan for a green industrial revolution, including SMRs and AMRs, was published in November 2020.

According to a joint statement by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Prime Minister’s Office the “UK’s electricity system will grow and could double in size by 2050 as demand for low-carbon electricity in sectors like heat and transport rises. Nuclear power provides a reliable source of low-carbon electricity”.

A further investment in the next generation of nuclear technology will be made through spending rounds, including up to £385 million in an Advanced Nuclear Fund (ANF). This will enable investment of up to £215 million into SMRs to develop a domestic smaller-scale power plant technology design that could potentially be built in factories and then assembled on site. This government investment aims to unlock up to £300 million of additional private sector match-funding.

The remaining £170 million will be for a research and development programme on AMRs. These reactors could operate at over 800°C and the high-grade heat could unlock efficient production of hydrogen and synthetic fuels, complementing the UK’s investments in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), hydrogen and offshore wind.

The key milestones for the UK’s nuclear power industry included an Energy White Paper, which had been long delayed but was published in late December, followed by a proposed launch of Phase 2 of the UK SMR design development in 2021.

In spring 2020 the IAEA started a two-year regional project, part of the its technical cooperation programme in Europe and Central Asia, which may serve as an accelerator for SMR innovation, investment and uptake in the region. Russia is the only country in Europe operating an SMR, namely Lomonosov the floating nuclear plant. IAEA’s project aims to assist countries in clean energy planning as well as determining the role of SMRs in helping them to meet their climate targets. This project involves 25 countries, and the Agency predicts that this decade will see the biggest development in SMR technology so far.

Author information: Rumyana Vakarelska is a journalist covering the energy and environmental sectors