The role of nuclear in a low-carbon Europe

Tim Yeo at the New Nuclear Watch Institute on why Europe needs nuclear

Low Carbon BNFL Nuclear Power Station Sizewell Suffolk United Kingdom

Europe is leading the world’s response to climate change. Challenging carbon emissions reduction targets are accelerating decarbonisation of many parts of the economy while reform of the European Union Emissions Trading System is boosting the price of EU carbon allowances towards a level that incentivises more investment in low-carbon technologies.  

Crucial role in climate protection

Looking ahead, the EU is committed to cutting emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and has set out a vision of zero net emissions in 2050. These are laudable goals but they cannot be achieved without significant policy changes, particularly with reference to nuclear power.

At present, nuclear provides about a quarter of the EU’s electricity – though this proportion is gradually declining – and more than half of its low-carbon electricity. It will be impossible, even with substantial growth in renewables, to meet emissions targets unless nuclear remains a significant part of the European energy mix. The situation has been aggravated by Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear and by French plans to reduce the share of nuclear in the power mix to 50% by 2035 – down from 75% today.  

Securing our energy needs

Nuclear is also important for Europe’s energy security. At present, energy imports account for about half of EU power needs, and almost 40% of its gas comes from Russia. Another European Commission aim is to increase the EU’s indigenous energy production.

Since new nuclear plants are currently planned or under construction in only a third of EU member states, and several other member states are actively opposed to nuclear, it is likely that total EU nuclear capacity will decline slightly in the early 2020s. This is in sharp contrast to what is happening elsewhere. Fast-growing Asian countries such as China recognise that nuclear energy is essential to cut their heavy dependence on coal. In the Middle East, governments are preparing for a decline in oil demand by building nuclear plants. Around Europe’s borders are pro-nuclear countries such as Ukraine, and now Turkey too, while Russia alone has more new plants planned than the whole of the EU.

Europe now needs a hard-headed analysis of how it can accelerate its switch to more low-carbon energy while simultaneously enhancing energy security and keeping prices competitive. Unfortunately, the predilection of the European Commission for separate specific targets for expanding renewables, alongside the wider emissions reduction targets, confuses the issue.

Such targets encourage advocates of renewables to dream of a future where all electricity is generated from solar, wind, hydro and marine sources. Modern economies require a continuous electricity supply, and until large-scale, long-term, flexible and affordable electricity storage is available, no country can rely exclusively on intermittent energy sources. Furthermore, renewables still require back-up generation capacity. And while renewables await their storage solutions, natural gas cannot be the only bridging fuel. Remaining at the forefront of addressing climate change will deliver great economic benefits for Europe because the high-growth nations in this century will be those that are the first to end their dependence on fossil fuels.  

Making it happen

European governments must accept that nuclear power and renewables are not alternatives or in competition but are complementary. Both are needed to prevent dangerous irreversible climate change. Countries that support nuclear energy must work cooperatively together towards more harmonised designs, regulations and construction techniques.

This approach, coupled with an open-minded attitude towards nuclear technologies developed outside Europe, will make nuclear energy cost competitive, enhance energy security and cut emissions, as well as enabling the development of globally competitive supply chain industries. 

By Tim Yeo, Chairman, the New Nuclear Watch Institute

Image credit | Getty