Power produced from nuclear fission is now a mature technology that provides about 16% of the world’s electricity and almost a third of that in the EU. In addition to the 400 or so nuclear power plants around the world, many more are to be built over the next 30 years. That’s because the cost of energy from nuclear reactors is highly competitive in relation to all other sources of electricity.
After half a century of nuclear power plants, it’s clear they have proven their value to society. Over 30 countries benefit substantially from nuclear energy, with NPPs providing a large amount of base load electricity at the lowest electricity production costs.
Despite Japan’s Fukushima accident following the tsunami in March 2011, the latest projections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that the global use of nuclear power will grow significantly in the coming decades. This will reflect increasing demand for energy along with decreasing reserves of oil and gas, and therefore uncertainties over supply. A second reason for greater reliance on nuclear power is climate change concern.
It’s worth stressing that nuclear energy is fully compatible with all three pillars of EU energy policy; it is a “sustainable development” technology because it generates power that will be available for centuries, it causes virtually no pollution and its use preserves valuable fossil resources for future generations. Nuclear safety measures include waste treatment and storage over the long-term that are widely recognised and are being implemented. Nuclear-generated electricity is thus more reliable and cost-efficient and can help ensure that Europe meets its ambitious climate goals.
All this is why nuclear energy is still used by the majority of EU member states, and is planned by newcomers that include Poland. So it is wrong to think that a nuclear phase-out trend exists within the EU. There are some who, despite all the facts, wish that it would be true, but the real situation in Europe is the opposite. Germany is alone in its spectacular anti-nuclear decision, for nuclear power plants are being given lifetime-extensions in Spain and in the UK and new ones are not only being considered or actively planned in Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Lithuania, but in the UK too. And they are under construction in France and Finland.
In other parts of the world, new nuclear power projects are more visible still. The dynamic economic growth of Asia has seen the most rapid expansion of nuclear programmes, with China, India and Korea basing their development to a very large extent on nuclear energy, just as Japan did 40 years ago and now intends to restart its nuclear units after the post-Fukushima safety review. The same even applies to oil and gas producing states, like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Although its ambitious goals are still only on paper, the Emirates have already begun to earmark nuclear investment. Even in the U.S., despite the shale-gas rush, licenses have just been approved for four new reactors. Nuclear power development is making progress in Russia too. One of its new reactors is under construction in Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave in the EU, so any concerns should focus on such projects that are not covered by Europe’s nuclear safety regime.
Any nuclear phasing-out in Europe would be comparable to greenhouse gas emission reduction plans that were limited just to the EU. It would bring with it consequences that are analogous to “carbon leakage”, and result not only in cheap and reliable energy being sacrificed but also a lot of jobs in much of the EU.
Nuclear energy is no silver bullet for resolving all of the EU’s energy problems. But it is a crucial part of the global solution of a sustainable and diversified energy mix. Creating the right energy mix for Europe means taking measures to develop key technologies. That means balancing the mix with all available technologies that can help further reduce emissions, and nuclear power has the greatest potential for this. And greater diversification of electricity generation technologies means greater security of supply.
Nuclear energy must be seen as essential to a common solution, and not as a rival to other technologies. It has already contributed to the development of other, mainly renewable, energy sources. In Germany, a special “renewable energy” tax is paid by nuclear operators, and in Poland legal arrangements designed for the development of nuclear power plants are used to improve the electrical grid so as to connect renewable sources to it.
All EU member states are free to shape their own domestic energy mix, so decisions concerning the share of renewables in energy generation need to take national circumstances into account. Decisions on increasing the share of renewables obviously have to fit into the overall infrastructure development strategy. Both domestic and cross-border grids and energy storage arrangements need to be strengthened so they are able to absorb projected levels of unstable electric power.
Increasing the share of renewables looks set to be an important element in the strengthening of Europe’s energy independence, in line with other sources like nuclear, coal and gas. And it has to be borne in mind that, if not correctly handled, boosting renewables could yet result in increased dependence on imported technologies and equipment. Over-optimistic assumptions about renewables can place a significant financial burden on the economies of many EU countries by decreasing their competitiveness, and causing a drastic increase in electricity prices unless corresponding actions are taken elsewhere in the world.
The importance of coal to future power engineering in Europe needs to be strongly underlined. Coal is set to remain a significant fuel in the EU for decades to come, not just in the energy sector but for industries like steel or pulp and paper. But the rising costs of CO2 will at the same time create a major threat to the competitiveness of these key industries.
All innovations cost money and have to be borne by the customer and ultimately in terms of economic competiveness. That’s why power engineering is a sensitive industry sector that doesn’t need a revolution that we simply cannot afford. Instead we need step-by-step evolution with well-defined and realistic goals. The solutions planned by some EU members – sometimes proudly labelled “revolutions” – are in reality costly processes that risk burdening the overall economy for decades to come.
The nuclear debate in Europe is both lively and healthy in political terms. Not long ago, Jürgen Trittin wrote in Europe’s World that “(…) national approaches towards energy supply won’t achieve the aim of creating a globally enduring and secure energy supply system. Instead, we need to think and act as Europeans.” I agree with his core thought. We do need a real common European energy policy that would protect the interests of all member states. But for me a European way of thinking and acting means respecting the needs of different member states in order to protect the interests of all Europe’s citizens, but not the ideological ambitions of some politicians. Forced “European” solutions that don’t consider the domestic situations of all are not in line with the democratic principles of the EU. Unless we take serious account of global circumstances, such solutions could even halt the economic growth of some member states and eventually the EU as a whole.
Without a sustainable energy mix that includes nuclear energy, the European economy will be less competitive, industry will move abroad and jobs will inevitably be lost.
Hanna Trojanowska is the Polish Government Commissioner for Nuclear Energy. email@example.com