Coming to a head

17 December 2021

Cartoon by Alexey KovynevJeremy Gordon says that rising gas prices show that Europe can’t afford to do without nuclear

Although I probably could have written a column like this at any time, it feels truer than ever to say that energy issues are coming to a head. Nothing highlights ‘energy security’ more than a price shock, and Europe is doing some serious reckoning right now. Is this finally the moment that policymakers will be emboldened to get fully behind nuclear? 


[Cartoon by Alexey Kovynev. Prime Minister: “I am cancelling my decision to ban the moratorium on the extension of the nuclear phaseout. In short, we are building a nuclear power plant again!”]

In October, as Europe tried to cope with energy prices surging by a factor of four or more in the space of a year, market analysts predicted the price spike would continue until there was ‘demand destruction’, ie. when people and businesses simply cannot afford to buy gas anymore. Unfortunately for all of us that means the deep economic damage and unpredictable side-effects of factories shutting down, while those that accept higher costs will inevitably pass them on, causing inflation.

It’s all a very stark contrast from the promises of renewable energy so affordable that, if not exactly ‘too cheap to meter’, was promoted as ‘the cheapest and only getting cheaper’. Cheap, that is, until it comes to the gas that partners it. Although we didn’t hear the renewable industry or its advocates saying it, they didn’t push back very hard when the likes of Norway’s StatOil marketed their natural gas as ‘the perfect partner for renewables’. 

To be clear, I am not anti-renewables and this is not an anti-renewable message. The gas supply situation is not the fault of wind and solar. 

According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), renewables in the European Union generated about 25% of the bloc’s electricity, and saved it €14 billion in gas costs, between July and September 2021. However, we must acknowledge that what really matters is not the cost of individual energy sources, but the price of the delivered electricity. At the moment that is unacceptably high. The only way to really control these costs and the energy security risks they bring is to decisively get off fossil fuels, something that is not feasible right now if we use only renewables. 

The oil price shocks of the 1970s were the major driver of nuclear build. Will the current price shock be enough to jolt our energy policymakers to similarly decisive behaviour? 

Not so far in Belgium, which is proceeding to kill its nuclear sector and swap it directly for gas. Yes, even now, the Green-controlled Ministry of Energy is showing the exact opposite of climate and economic common sense.

According to CREA figures, Belgium’s nuclear fleet saved it €1 billion on gas purchases. In return, the minister, Tinne Van der Straeten, wants to take profits from nuclear operators to subsidise consumer electricity bills. Sure, consumers do need protection from infinite spikes in energy prices — that kind of thing is the role of government (as is avoiding price spikes in the first place). But is it smart to undermine the assets that got you through a crisis with the left hand, while giving with the right hand to sources that caused the problem? My head is spinning and I’m not the only one. “The nuclear phase-out is not an objective but a means to achieve 100% renewable energy,” said Van der Straeten, nonsensically. Her policies will make the Belgian electricity sector 67% reliant on gas, all of it imported. Great plan. 

Next door in France, 56 nuclear reactors avoided about €7 billion in gas costs, according to CREA, at the same time neatly channelling any windfall profits back to the nation through EDF. If the cost overruns of Flamanville and Olkiluoto represent a rebooting of French construction capability, they are paid for right there. 

As if in response to this economic wake-up call, President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘France 2030’ plan couldn’t have been much better for nuclear. In his 10-point plan for re-industrialisation, Objective 1 was ‘reinventing nuclear’ and Objective 2 was using the nuclear fleet to take a leading position in hydrogen production. Next on his agenda is to take a decision on the potential build of six new large reactors. Given he described nuclear as “absolutely key” to his strategy for the decade, anything other than a positive decision would be surprising.

Those two countries represent the nuclear divide in Europe perfectly — neighbours with an awful lot in common, but completely different views on nuclear energy. 

Belgium comes from a group determined to close nuclear at literally any cost, along with Germany, Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg. On the other side are nations that have, frankly, had enough of the first group telling them what to do and have decided to stand up against them. Led by France and the Czech Republic, the new ‘Nuclear Alliance’ also comprises Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia.

I wrote in NEI March 2019 that before Germany’s renewable-only narrative can be thrown out, the other countries need an alternative. For the Nuclear Alliance, “Nuclear energy is an opportunity for us Europeans to continue to develop high value-added industries, create thousands of jobs, strengthen our leadership in environmental protection and ensure strategic autonomy and energy self-sufficiency for Europe. Let us not waste this vital opportunity.” 

This foreshadowed the “21st Century humanism” of Macron’s France 2030 plan and its aims to re-industrialise France and then capitalise on the innovations that emerge from jobs-rich activities brought back from overseas.

The immediate test for those groupings concerns the EU’s taxonomy of sustainable areas for investment and the political question of whether nuclear will be included or not. (The scientific question was settled in favour of nuclear by the Joint Research Council’s report in March).

Surely Macron, as well as the leaders of the other countries, will be hoping to take advantage of the Taxonomy’s provisions to attract private investment into their new-build plans. Their opponents hope exclusion will starve nuclear of funds, kill plants off early and make new build even harder.

If the pro-nuclear grouping is successful and longlasting — and Macron’s doubling down on nuclear indicates it might be — there will be further tension over the energy intensity and lower emissions that the nuclear nations will be able to enjoy. Already Austria has started complaining that it should not be held to the same decarbonisation standards as countries that use nuclear.

One way or another, the Taxonomy should be decided by the end of the year, but before then we have COP26, the global gathering and negotiation on climate change targets. It is set for Glasgow, Scotland in the first two weeks of November.

The main task for delegates will be to agree emissions cuts that get closer to the goals of the Paris Agreement, as made at COP21, six years ago. So far national pledges only amount to a few percent of what is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

While the circus of the overall event will hear screaming for faster and more urgent action across all areas of development, not just energy, I can’t help thinking a lot of the conversation between energy wonks and ministers will be centred on the energy security situation. Let’s hope the success of nuclear energy in mitigating reliance on gas will help it get the airtime it deserves.

The chances are good for nuclear to have a decent share of the spotlight in Glasgow, hosted as it is by the UK government. Firm decisions and funding for more new nuclear build there are long overdue and, hopefully, are being prepared for announcement either in the lead up to the event or alongside it.

The last few weeks have made it clear that no matter how many renewables you build, something else is needed to back them up. In late 2021, the question for European countries is not whether they can afford to have nuclear power, but whether they can afford not to have it. 

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15+ years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development. 


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