The European Union wants to become climate-neutral by 2050. To this end, a vast variety of legislative goals from the European Green Deal to a “comprehensive plan” to cut EU emissions by at least 55% by 2030 have been proposed by the Commission’s President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, while some 25-30% of the EU’s 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework is intended to be spent on climate change prevention.
But it should not come as a surprise that in order to successfully become climate-neutral by 2050, Europe needs to include nuclear energy in this mix. Reaching the necessary levels of renewable energy production in 30 years to achieve a successful energy transition will be difficult enough, never mind in a situation where renewables would also have to cover the 30% hole in clean electricity production left from cutting out nuclear power generation. We must utilise all available solutions.
A look into the benefits of nuclear power generation
The necessity to maintain the existing nuclear fleet as well as to build new capacity in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s ambition of limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5C by 2050 has been recognised by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the OECD’s International Energy Agency (IEA), and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). Intermittent renewables alone simply cannot provide the flexible and reliable power needed to balance the constantly changing demand, especially given that no sufficient battery storage technology exists yet or is likely to be made available for commercial usage in the foreseeable future. And considering the urgency of climate action, there is no time to spare.
In addition to offering reliability and flexibility, nuclear energy is highly effective in terms of costs, land-use, and resource usage. On the first point, the European Commission has estimated that ensuring the long-term operations of the current European nuclear fleet would offer the lowest total costs out of all forms of energy production in 2030. The assessment takes into account both capital and operating costs of power generation. This would lower the overall investment costs required to ensure a successful clean energy transition, which is obviously preferable considering that much of such costs are likely to be shouldered by EU citizens in their role as both consumers and taxpayers.
Regarding land-use and resource effectiveness, it has been calculated that in order to produce the same amount of electricity as a typical nuclear power plant, a wind farm would require 360 times the land area. Similarly, building a wind power facility consumes significantly more materials than a nuclear reactor to achieve the same amount of electricity (Table 10.4, Quadrennial Technology Review 2015). The story is similar on solar energy production. This is particularly relevant considering the concerns raised over land-use in global climate change mitigation efforts in the IPCC Special Report from August 2019.
Furthermore, compared to the emissions from fossil fuels (i.e. CO2 and numerous harmful air pollutants) causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in Europe each year, the water vapour emitted by nuclear plant reactors is remarkably safe. In fact, nuclear energy production’s median life-time carbon emissions are on par with offshore wind power (12g CO2eq/kWh), according to the IPCC’s 2014 report on climate change mitigation. This is almost four times lower than the median lifetime carbon emissions of solar power generation (45g CO2eq/kWh). There are also questions to be answered on how to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20-year life span in order to ensure that no toxic elements, such as lead or cadmium, end up in the environment.
The pressing issue of radioactive waste
Radioactive waste – high-level waste (HLW) in particular – is a key concern for many for why nuclear energy production should be reduced and ultimately terminated. This is the reason, for example, why the European Commission’s Technical Expert Group (TEG) on sustainable finance proposed nuclear energy not to be included in the economic activities deemed sustainable for the so-called green financing. This was the case despite the TEG also concluding that the ‘evidence on the potential substantial contribution of nuclear energy to climate mitigation objectives [is] extensive and clear’ (p. 234). Meanwhile, the Council of the EU has proposed that the future legislation on sustainable finance taxonomy should not omit the nuclear sector from consideration.
HLW amounts to only 3% of the global radioactive waste. In France, for example, the annual amount of HLW generated per capita is just 11 grams. (It should also be noted that radioactive waste is generated by many other sectors, such as the medical diagnostic and therapeutic practises, which use nuclear technology in X-ray imaging and cancer treatments, for example.) You can compare the 11g to the 100kg of toxic industrial waste generated in France within the same time period – the effect of which to its surroundings is not reduced over time – and ponder if this is worth jeopardising the EU’s prospects of reaching climate-neutrality by 2050 for.
All EU Member States generate radioactive waste. Thus, all EU members are required to maintain detailed national plans and conduct thorough long-term safety evaluations that take into account all reasonably foreseeable uncertainties affecting the management of radioactive waste. Based on these plans, evaluations, and international agreements on safety measures, such waste is safely stored in secure interim storages. Projects on permanent disposal sites for HLW are ongoing in many Member States, such as in Finland, France, and Sweden.
Another key concern is the safety of nuclear power plants. Luckily for everyone, the management of nuclear reactors is a highly regulated and constantly reviewed affair operating under the Euratom Treaty’s legislative framework. According to the Commission, the EU is in fact a global leader in nuclear safety and security with rigorously monitored standards. Member States are mandated to set up independent national regulators to oversee the safety of nuclear sites and to have robust financing mechanisms in place to ensure the maintenance of reactors. The safety reference levels established by the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association (WENRA) also ensure consistent monitoring and that operating permits are not granted to reactors containing significant safety gaps. And you do not have to just accept my take on the matter, as there are numerous experts to listen to instead.
The point of this article is not in any way to claim that a majority of EU energy production should be provided by nuclear. It is just to explain that as a reliable, stable, and efficient clean energy source, the nuclear sector would be best suited to provide flexible supply to balance the grid and facilitate the uptake of intermittent renewable energy in Europe. This requires both the maintenance of old capacity and launching new-build projects to keep up with the growing need for electricity to support cleaner industry and transport sectors. Ultimately, as sources of energy, nuclear power and renewables are on the same side of the campaign to tackle climate change.
If, as Energy Commissioner-designate Kadri Simson said in her hearing on 3 October, the aim of the new Commissions is to foster a successful energy transition that does not threaten the security and affordability of energy in Europe, then nuclear energy (maintaining the long-term operations of the existing fleet in particular) provides competitive and clean option in line with the EU’s 2030 and 2050 climate objectives.