Addressing the European Commission’s 15th European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF) in Prague on 10 November, EU Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, said the conversation around nuclear energy in Europe had shifted since the previous ENEF meeting a year before.
She said the new conversation is about the renewed potential of nuclear energy, the obstacles, and what needs to be done in the EU to remove them.
She first addressed energy security, stressing “the need to mobilise all parts of our energy system”, including nuclear, to stand against Russia's geopolitics. “This year a number of EU member states have seen either partial or full reduction of energy supplies from Russia,” she said. “And this is the context that led us to adopt our REPowerEU Strategy in May. Its aim is simple: to remove Russian fossil fuels from our system for good… And to diversify our supplies where we can as we pursue our clean energy model for the future. Meanwhile, ensuring supply of energy for this winter and beyond.”
She noted: “We still find ourselves in a situation where we have a critical dependence on Russia for nuclear fuel supply to Russian designed reactors operated in five of our member states. And many other member states rely on Russia for services – conversion and enrichment. This needs to change, because, as it is with gas, we cannot be fully secure of our energy supply if we are dependent on an unreliable source. For the past few months the five countries with active Russian designed reactors have been in discussions on what can be done to licence alternative fuels that don't compromise on energy security.” She added: “Nuclear energy can offer useful solutions in the current crisis and at the same time presents to us important security of supply challenges of its own.”
The second, and “broadest” challenge facing nuclear, she identified as climate. “Nuclear power, being amongst the lowest greenhouse gas emitters throughout its entire life cycle, has to be part of the decarbonisation discussion,” she said, noting that Europe was “the first continent to aim for carbon neutrality by 2050, and we are already working towards the Fit for 55 and REPowerEU targets”.
She made clear that “the backbone of the future European carbon free power system will be predominantly renewables, adding: “But the reality is that these renewables will need to be complemented with a stable baseload electricity production. This is why nuclear energy is not just a safety and security concern, but also a real solution.”
Currently, nuclear power is “the most prevalent low-carbon source providing the baseload we need for the stability of the electricity system”. And with security of supply issues following surging energy prices, “we have seen how important is the availability of nuclear power”. She continued: “Based on our modelling, we expect the share of the nuclear power to be roughly 15-16% in our electricity production in 2030 and 2050 perspective. So, the EU should have a stable generation capacity, at the level of just over 100 GW, in the coming decades.”
However, without the investment “we won't succeed in making nuclear fit for the future” This is the third challenge. Today the average age of the EU nuclear fleet is greater than 30 years. “And our analysis shows that without immediate investment, around 90% of existing reactors would be shut down around the time when we need them most – in 2030.” To maintain the same generation capacity as today, by replacing retiring units with new reactors, it will require about €350-450 billion of investment, and another €45-50 billion for long-term operation of existing reactors.
“All of this amounts to a hugely significant level of investment. And the cost of financing will play a key role in making nuclear energy production a competitive option.” At present, there are three power reactor units under construction and close to commissioning in the EU. Five projects for building six more units are underway, and in the coming decades, seven EU states plan to build about 20 additional reactor units.
Simson said: “Public investment will only get us so far. But we are sending the right signals to mobilise and incentivise the private sector in the same endeavour. That's why the EU taxonomy delegated act including nuclear activities is so important, and will enter into force in January. It will help our industry to upgrade safety and efficiency at sites and construct new reactors with the most advanced technologies.”
In addition, plans for improvements to the electricity market design, are investigating long-term contracting to ensure investments in firm and low-carbon capacities. “It is indeed the starting point of the reform, that consumers need to benefit from the clean and affordable power production.”
The fourth challenge is the potential of innovative nuclear technologies. “When coupled with other energy sources, including renewables, nuclear power can lead to even more efficiency gains, improve grid stability and our security of supply. But nuclear power can also provide a great contribution to further electrification, hydrogen production, and heat generation for buildings and industry,” she noted.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are an important solution to integrate the energy system and decarbonise sectors that pose the biggest challenge. “Our aim is to have the first European SMRs to go live at the start of the next decade. Because of that, in Europe, demand for this new technology is on the rise. In a wide range of EU member states there is interest in innovative solutions SMRs can offer.”
She added that industry is responding to this demand with several EU designs already under development. “We are providing backing with our EU research and innovation framework programme – Horizon Europe. And we are closely following the stakeholders’ initiative on the launch of the European SMR Partnership. This is a way to work with everyone involved, industry, researchers, customers and national authorities to develop the best regulatory approaches possible for SMR licensing.”
Finally, she asked whether the nuclear energy ecosystem is fit for EU's climate and energy objectives. “The nuclear energy industry and its related activities represent a high-tech industrial sector in EU economy and a significant source of GDP, added value, employment, and exports. But the future prospects of the nuclear sector and its contribution to decarbonisation objectives cannot be taken for granted.”
She called on all the actors in the EU nuclear sector - utilities, designers, equipment manufacturers, regulatory authorities – “to face the forthcoming challenges and opportunities, and allow nuclear sector's sustained and material contribution”. While ensuring the highest standards of safety, “we need to comprehensively assess the situation of the sector through different strands (legal, financial, technical, and skills) needed for the development and operation of a safe and competitive nuclear energy industry. She concluded: “Since the last ENEF, the story of nuclear has changed in many ways. Though we are not where we expected to be, the future for nuclear looks very bright.”
ENEF was founded in 2007 and annual forums take place alternatively in Bratislava and Prague. They are open to everyone with an interest in nuclear energy, including EU governments, European institutions, representatives of the nuclear industry and regulators, electricity consumers and civil society.