New research from market analysis experts Frost and Sullivan has found that nuclear energy is the answer for the European Union (EU) if it wishes to meet its carbon emission reduction targets by 2020.
Whilst the study accepts that there are environmental risks for nuclear energy, reactors still hand EU member states the most practical way of weaning themselves off fossil fuels. The research concludes that globally the number of nuclear new builds is increasing, with Asia leading the way with the most new projects currently in operation, with the United States approving their first new nuclear plants since 1970 with its Vogtle 3 and 4 projects based in Georgia.
Despite countries such as Germany, Italy and Belgium pulling away from nuclear, the paper points to the UK, Sweden and countries across Central and Eastern Europe, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, swaying towards nuclear energy, leaving more plants being built than being decommissioned.
In a view of the political situation in Europe, Frost and Sullivan believe their argument for nuclear is strengthened, by the potentially fractious situations that could occur by over relying on gas imports from Russia.
Enguerran Ripert, a European consultant with Frost and Sullivan, says: “The future of nuclear in the European Union will very much depend on the attitude of each nation state. If you look at Germany after they turned their back on nuclear their electricity prices have risen having a negative impact on users, and their industrial players are having to put up with increasing power supply and reliability issues.
The start-up costs of building nuclear plants, in a climate where the government debt as a ratio to GDP is currently 90% as an average across the 27, EU countries for the second quarter of last year according to Eurostat may be a prohibiting factor in the future proliferation of new plants.
“It depends on the funding model which you use, looking at the UK; it is mostly privately funded with little government involvement, whereas in France as EDF is mostly government owned, it makes the issue more difficult. In France there are 58 reactors which hardly makes it cost effective for France to move away from nuclear, which also provides a lot of employment in the energy sector,” Ripert adds.
Ripert notes that there has been a scaling back from plans to build new plants as we have seen in the UK where originally there was supposed to be 10 or 11 plants built, but the number has instead been reduced to four or five.
More new builds, but less reactors
“As designs of new plants can last for 60 years or more, then I still think of nuclear as economical, but even though there will be more new builds in the next 20 years in Europe the amount of reactors will decrease,” says Ripert.
The official view of the EU is that it is up to each nation state how they create their energy supply to meet the targets of cutting carbon emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80-95% of 1990 emissions by 2050. Sources at the European Commission say that the scenarios for the roadmap to 2050 means that nuclear energy will play a significant part in achieving those targets, particularly if carbon capture storage technology is delayed over time.
Nuclear’s economical merit
In the Commission’s diversified supply technology scenario, where energy is calculated purely on its economic merit, nuclear power is forecast to have 16% of the EU’s energy base, a higher share than it has now. There is also a high renewables scenario that elbows out nuclear energy to have just 4% of the market share but how realistic is this?
The Frost and Sullivan report questions whether renewable projects are fit for large scale production of energy. The report also notes that they see renewables as still cost intensive comparable to the energy output they can supply to any national grid.
“We have seen a lot of subsidies for renewable energy sources, but these have not always led to efficient investments, as seen in Germany. Solar power consumes half the total subsidy, but provides just a fifth of renewable electricity. Making renewable sources such as solar and wind turbines more cost effective starts with using them in areas where sun shines or wind blows,” explains Annika Ahtonen, an energy policy analyst
for the think tank the European Policy Centre.
EU emissions target “not realistic”
Also if we want to see a renewables revolution by 2020, Europe would need to invest in a smart grid now. However, at the moment, we are not seeing the financial investments, nor the political will.”
She adds: “I don’t think at the moment reaching the EU emissions target is realistic: our emissions from coal usage are only increasing. The investments of today determine our energy mix for 2020, and thus coal, oil, gas and nuclear will continue to play an important role in meeting our demands. As for nuclear, it’s a long process to invest in nuclear energy and while there are security issues for governments to consider, it’s obvious that nuclear will remain an important part of many EU member states’ energy mix.”
Official figures from the EU say that from between 1990 and 2009 the share of nuclear energy in producing electricity dropped from 31% to 28% as gas grew significantly, the evidence is weighted towards nuclear power that its share will increase once more.
The UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) has launched a regeneration campaign, following depressing survey results that found over a third of science, technology, engineering, and maths undergraduates, did not see a career in the nuclear industry.
The maintenance of nuclear plants in the US and the UK has to be constantly reviewed to ensure safety and efficiency, leaving regulators and licensees in a constant battle to ensure that techniques and methods are effective and up to date.
When Centrica withdrew from the new nuclear construction programme at Hinkley Point C, potential suppliers had concerns. Despite later commitment from Chinese investors, some suppliers see the highly-charged political and financial environment of new build a major hindrance.