NUCLEAR ENERGY The benefits of an unpopular sector
If there is one subject over which European society is split, it must be nuclear energy. The ‘darling’ of energy policy for the majority of EU Member States during the 'glorious thirties', for the past two decades it has been at the centre of much controversy – so much so that several European countries have stated their desire to abandon nuclear energy altogether. But surely such a stance is now seriously at odds with the need to respond to the new problem of climate change? Over recent years, this question has become central to the challenge facing the future of our energy – not just in Europe, but globally.
'Either we shut down the nuclear sector and give up on Kyoto, or we do not shut down the nuclear sector and we respect Kyoto.' (Loyola de Palacio, Commissioner responsible for energy and transport).
So what are the drawbacks of nuclear energy? They are certainly very real. In terms of nuclear waste alone, they are no doubt as difficult to accept as they are to resolve. In the present context, however, this sector has the major benefit of being equally difficult to ignore. Alongside renewable energies – currently of limited potential – nuclear fission is a means of producing electricity not only on a very large scale but also in a sustainable way – not a single greenhouse gas molecule is emitted from the nuclear reactions involved. Also, in terms of strategy, nuclear energy can enable Europe to reduce its growing energy dependency which is compromising its future.
Such is the dilemma facing the Union's energy policy. With electricity flowing increasingly between the Member States to meet peak demand, the nuclear sector now provides more than a third of Community needs. Meanwhile, the implications of the stated desire of several Member States to abandon nuclear energy remain somewhat vague. We know little about how such a policy would be implemented or what alternative production solutions would be able to meet environmental constraints. What is more, this is happening at a time of Union enlargement to include new states with their own sizeable contingent of nuclear plants!
'Abandoning nuclear energy as we enter the 21st century is not only an anachronism, but is and will remain, for a long time to come, the biggest mistake ever made by a Belgian government. Further developing nuclear energy is – on the contrary – one of the most effective ways of serving sustainable development (…). Any policy that seeks to abandon it is utopian, if not dishonest…’
It was in such forthright terms that Professor André Berger, the internationally renowned climatologist, expressed his views in an open letter addressed to Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, in January 2003. It followed his government's decision ultimately to cease using nuclear energy.
The situation is paradoxical to say the least. Under the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, Europe undertook, by 2012, to reduce its CO2 emissions by 8% compared with 1990 levels. When the growth in energy consumption is taken into account, this means reducing CO2 emissions by 550 million tonnes by the target date, which is double the commitment made at the time of signing the protocol.
Putting it crudely The Union has resolved to make a considerable effort to double the use of renewable energy, targeted to meet at least 12% of its primary supplies by 2012. Yet even if it succeeds, this would only reduce its emissions by 200 million tonnes – leaving 350 million outstanding.
The nuclear sector currently represents a 'non-emission' of almost 180 million tonnes of CO2. Shutting it down would bring even more constraints on having any hope of meeting Europe's commitments towards combating climate warming. The problem is further complicated by the inevitable increase in world energy demand: electricity consumption is expected to rise by 3% by 2030.
Loyola de Palacio, the Commissioner responsible for energy and transport, summed up the dilemma very succinctly: 'Either we shut down the nuclear sector and give up on Kyoto, or we do not shut down the nuclear sector and we respect Kyoto. It is as simple as that: sometimes you have to put it crudely so that people understand.'
Economic aspect The problem can also be approached from another angle: that of energy costs. Compared with other forms of production, the electronuclear sector can bear high capital depreciation. Despite being spread over a very long period, depreciation costs represent at least 60% of the cost per KWh compared to around 20% for gas turbines. And as a result of the stringent safety requirements, operating costs(1) are also nearly double. On the other hand, nuclear energy offers a considerable economic plus: the supply of uranium is subject to few of the costs or uncertainties of fossil fuels and its share of the cost per KWh is five times less.
The net result of these factors is that, provided production and market share remain at present levels, the current average production cost for electricity generated by the nuclear sector as a whole remains very competitive. But will that remain the case in the totally open electricity market now in the making?
The picture would be very different, however, if we made a study of the global environmental impact of electricity production which is not strictly quantifiable. The Externe-E European research project has provided the first very significant figures in this respect. These show that the externalities associated with fossil fuels (cost and effects in terms of health, deterioration of the urban environment, agricultural productivity, etc.) weigh very heavily indeed. (2) In Germany, for example, the external cost per kWh generated by the wind power sector is 0.05 cents, compared with between 5 and 8 cents per kWh for electricity generated at an oil-fuelled thermal plant, and between 1 and 2 cents for natural gas. The external costs per kWh for nuclear energy (0.2 to 0.7 cents) are, by comparison, remarkably low throughout Europe.
The WETO(3) study – which is very pessimistic about climate warming if present energy production and consumption trends are projected through to 2030 – is based on another approach. One of the alternative models adopted by this research project shows that a strict application of the Kyoto Protocol, with a tax levied on CO2 emissions, would bring a significant reduction in global energy consumption. In terms of an economic logic dictated by prices, this scenario would result in a redistribution of the energy cards: the increased competitiveness of nuclear and renewable energies would win these two sectors a 35% increase in market share compared with a scenario exempt from CO2 tax.
Before the benefits of nuclear energy are universally accepted, there remains the obstacle of the 'dark side' of the atom and the fears it arouses. Are we going, after interminable delays, to finally get to grips with rendering harmless the poisonous waste that the sector is continuing to accumulate? Can we further improve the reliability of nuclear technologies and provide more transparency, without which the public can never make a democratic choice in their favour? Finally, are we prepared to place our trust in the ability of researchers – in the public and private sectors – to design future generations of power stations that will overcome the disadvantages of those alongside which we live today?
(1) By including the costs of processing and storing radioactive waste, as practised at present, and taking into account the possibilities for geological disposal. (2) See RTD info no.35 (3) World energy, technology and climate policy outlook. See RTD info no.39
The present confusion about the future of nuclear energy in Europe is undermining, if not threatening the very existence of, activities linked to nuclear physics. The first-rate scientific and technological know-how acquired in this field is the fruit ...
Seven Member States – Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal – do not use nuclear energy for their electricity production. Austria, built a nuclear plant in the 1970s but never started it up. Italy, which had two, ...
Excellence at risk
The present confusion about the future of nuclear energy in Europe is undermining, if not threatening the very existence of, activities linked to nuclear physics. The first-rate scientific and technological know-how acquired in this field is the fruit of more than 50 years of continuous research.
The future may well be uncertain, but given the global environmental context it is more than likely that the nuclear sector will continue in some form or another in Europe(1). So can we allow this excellence to be depleted? It is capital which needs a dynamic research framework if it is to survive, while the present lack of prospects is forcing young people to look elsewhere for a research specialisation. What is more, the choices of the past alone make it imperative to safeguard this scientific capability. As a result of prevarication, Europe has failed to mobilise sufficient resources to bring credible and common solutions to the problem of radioactive waste. Vital know-how is also needed to manage existing plants. Finally, progress in nuclear physics is not limited to the nuclear energy sector alone but has a vital role to play in medicine, industry and other fields.
It is to maintain know-how in this field within the European Research Area that the Union supports, through the Euratom project under the Sixth Framework Programme, actions to promote and develop human resources and mobility, in the form of grants and special training programmes (in particular co-operation with third countries).
(1) No doubt in certain developed countries such as France and Finland, which show little inclination to shut down their nuclear sectors and, on a global level, most certainly China and other emerging countries.
Seven Member States – Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal – do not use nuclear energy for their electricity production. Austria, built a nuclear plant in the 1970s but never started it up. Italy, which had two, decreed a moratorium following the Chernobyl disaster and shut them both down permanently in 1990(1). And the Netherlands, whose nuclear production meets just 5% of national electricity production, can almost be included among these ‘non-nuclear’ countries.
Seven other Member States have 140 reactors between them, supplying 850 THw, or one-third of the Union's electricity production. Half of Europe's nuclear energy is produced by France which, subsequently, meets more than three-quarters of its own needs while also exporting.
However, among the latter group, five countries which are major nuclear producers are now pulling back. Sweden started the trend. In 1980, following a referendum, it set the goal of decommissioning all of its 12 working reactors by 2010, a date that has become the subject of debate, however(2).
Spain (where electronuclear production meets 28% of demand) imposed a moratorium in 1984 that is still in force. Its task made easier by North Sea oil, the United Kingdom, while remaining the Union's third largest nuclear energy producer, also stopped building any new plants 20 years ago and a White Paper published at the end of 2003 offers little prospect of any change(3). In 1998, Germany, with Europe's second largest production capacity, also decided to abandon nuclear energy over the coming decade. Belgium, whose seven reactors produce more than half its electricity needs, plans to do the same between 2015 and 2025.
Only France and Finland – the only country at present committed to building a new plant – have come out in favour of pursuing the nuclear energy option.
(1) Paradoxically, this 'denuclearised' country imports massive quantities of nuclear electricity, from France in particular. (2) However, just one plant has been decommissioned since and nuclear energy continues to meet four-fifths of Sweden's electricity needs. (3) http://www.dti.gov.uk/energy/whitepaper/index.shtml