EU countries defend nuclear's climate role

13 March 2013

A forthright statement by the governments of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the UK has called for 'neutrality of technology' in meeting future European Union (EU) decarbonisation targets.

The one-page joint communique from the twelve countries, released yesterday, stressed their belief that nuclear power "can play a part in the EU's future low carbon energy mix". It also noted the security of supply and economic benefits that the technology brings and called for an investment environment to be created within Europe that specifically takes into account "the long term nature of nuclear infrastructure projects."

"Member States committed to press ahead with their decarbonisation objectives through the deployment of the fullest possible range of low carbon technologies, particular to their nation’s needs and wishes. This could include renewables, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power. Such neutrality of technology complements the common European goal of a decarbonised economy given that determination of the energy mix is a national competence."

On the same day, news came from Reuters of a leaked European Commission (EC) draft policy paper which they claim outlines new European energy targets for 2030. This includes a 40% carbon reduction target as measured against 1990 levels and a 30% overall renewable energy target.

The announcement shows that lines are being drawn over the best way to reach future carbon targets with the Commission’s preferred approach seemingly at odds with that of several of its member states.

Countries in the European Union are currently bound by the 20-20-20 energy goals introduced in 2007. These require that by the year 2020 the region achieves a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and a 20% increase in energy efficiency as compared to a 1990 baseline, as well as that 20% of overall energy be supplied by renewable energy sources. According to the EC the decarbonisation target is on track to being met, but the path beyond 2020 has not yet been set out. The long term goal is for 80% decarbonisation by the year 2050.

Under the existing framework European countries have made sizable investments in renewable energy capacity, facilitated the by EU-wide emissions trading scheme and backed by a series of national measures - portfolio standards, feed-in-tariffs and other subsidy arrangements. Prices have fallen for these energy forms but they remain dependent on subsidies and have resulted in increased cost for consumers.

Regarding electricity, emphasis has been placed on the deployment on intermittent wind and solar power, however the low capacity factors of these technologies means that the overall contribution to production remains modest. By contrast only one new nuclear project has begun construction in the EU since 2007 - namely the EPR at Flamanville.

A report from the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency published December last year set out the systems cost for assorted energy technologies in different OECD countries. This includes additional grid costs as well as those for balancing supply and demand. While all generating forms were found to cause some systems costs, those from wind and solar are expected to be about ten times higher than for fossil or nuclear at 10% penetration levels and considerably higher at levels beyond that.

The economics of nuclear and renewables are similar in that construction and capital costs are the major factor in determining their levelised cost of energy. The payback is typically longer than for an equivalent fossil plant making it difficult to attract investment without incentive, but the operating costs are lower and more stable. Many countries are now looking at ways to encourage new nuclear as well as renewables in order to achieve their pressing climate and energy security goals.

On the other hand, several countries - such as Germany - are phasing-out nuclear as well as supposedly trying to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Some doubt exists as to whether high levels of decarbonisation are even possible in a renewables-only future due to the need for backup, and attention is growing on the system effects of high renewable penetration levels.

Safety and sovereignty

On the subject of nuclear safety, the communique expressed a commitment to continuous improvement. It also welcomed the follow up actions being carried out by European nuclear regulators as a result of the stress test program. However it was luke-warm about the need to revise the European safety requirement, although it stated that the countries remained 'open to discussion'. Nuclear regulation is currently carried out at the national level and differences in approach exist between countries. The EC has actively been pushing for a more standardised approach.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News