Lifetime extension of nuclear plants is big problem for EU power sector

The story of bankruptcies, bad luck and mishaps continues in a number of nuclear projects. Why are some states and companies still clinging to nuclear fission? [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

Fewer nuclear reactors are being built worldwide but more and more nuclear power plants run for longer periods than originally planned. It is therefore high time that those term extensions become a European issue, Claus Mayr of the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union told EURACTIV Germany in an interview.

Claus Mayr is European Policy Director at the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) Germany.

He spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s Johanna Greuter.

During the recently terminated coalition negotiations for a “Jamaica” coalition, there has been no talk about nuclear power.

Yes, I was surprised too, that in the consultation papers concerning European affairs and climate policy, nuclear power has not been mentioned with a single word. The nuclear phase-out in Germany is concluded and with this, the Jamaica negotiators apparently thought that everything is just fine.

But they have forgotten that some of their EU neighbours plan to extend the mileages of old reactors close to the border, or like Belgium, have already decided without German authorities or citizens being able to raise safety concerns. A future coalition, regardless of its composition, should think about this problem and work accordingly in Brussels towards improvements in EU law.

In your opinion, what is currently the biggest problem at European level with regard to nuclear energy?

Definitely the runtime extensions of old nuclear power plants. This is totally pressing, but nobody has this on his mind. There are several member states around us who want to keep the old ones online for a longer time. Especially, because depreciated nuclear reactors are true money printing machines.

Runtime extensions are economically profitable and new buildings are not?

Yes. Only a few nuclear power plants are being built because they do not pay off financially. However, you can earn money with old nuclear reactors. It is estimated that they will bring one million euros per day to the operators’ coffers, if they are written off after about 20 years, meaning when the financing costs are paid off. Every annual extension thus means several hundred million in profits.

In this respect, the operators mostly try not to build new power plants, but to keep old ones on the grid for a longer period of time. The problem is that the nuclear power plants are usually designed for a technical life of 40 years. For example, at the Tihange 1 reactor block in Belgium, about 65 kilometres from Aachen, the term has been increased to 50 years by 2025, with a further extension to 60 years until 2035 being discussed.

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Is Belgium one of the countries with the gravest lifetime extensions in the EU?

Yes. In Belgium in 2015, the first reactor became 40 years old and should have been taken off the grid. These are the Belgian governments’ decisions after the incident in Fukushima. In 2016, however, the government decided to extend the term by ten years. The German press from the Aachen area already reported in the summer that the boss of the operator thinks the power plant and the reactor blocks are so secure that they can run until 2035.

Meanwhile, this seems also to be the opinion of the Belgian majority party NVA. Therefore, it is one-third more than the originally planned 40 years. Although, we know that the failure proneness of reactors severely increases with age.

In the breakdown statistics of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Belgium with its reactors is located at a top spot in the ranking. The top ranks are filled with France and many nuclear power plants in the new member states that joined the EU in 2004 or 2007. They still have Chernobyl-type reactors, ticking time bombs. The Belgian plans for a term of 60 years are therefore an “experiment” with an uncertain outcome and millions of people around the old reactor blocks are the “guinea pigs”!

Is there no legal means to counteract the lifetime extensions of nuclear power plants?

This is the crucial point, there is no legal basis for lawsuits against a lifetime extension of the reactors. There is a regulatory gap in the EU’s Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (SEA): only the construction of new buildings and, ironically, the decommissioning of nuclear power plants must be subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) – unlike the lifetime extension.

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Why do you think there is a gap in the EIA Directive?

When the directive was first discussed at the end of the 1970s and adopted by the member states in 1985 (85/337 / EEC), probably no one thought of operating nuclear power plants for more than 40 years. The most recent amendment to the EIA Directive in 2014 omitted the subject. I do not know if that was done deliberately.

However, if the political is there, the directive could be updated at any time. The workload would be very low, as one would only have to insert the word “life extension” in the annex of the EIA-obligated projects and the problem would be solved.

What influence would EIA have on the lifetime extension of nuclear power plants?

As part of an environmental impact assessment, the safety of the reactors could be audited with regard to the lifetime extension of the reactor. In the coming years, more extensions are pending. In Aachen, we have the power plant Tihange on our doorstep, the Bavarians have the Czech nuclear power plant Temelín nearby and the Rhineland-Palatinates the French Cattenom. Hungary and Sweden are also planning to extend. That will increase.

Would there be a majority in the European Parliament for an update of the EIA Directive?

So far, apparently not. We are in contact with MEP. Until now no application has been made that the Commission should address this issue in the next amendment to the Directive. He thinks he will not get a majority in the Parliament. However, this argument is not valid, because an initial request is the freedom of every MEP.

They should at least try it. For example, our regional MEPs have all said in the context of the Belgian nuclear power plant that they want to stop Tihange because it is far too dangerous. If they promise that to the citizens and then do not even take the smallest initiative, it gives a very weak picture.

The Commission says that nuclear power plants are a separate decision to be made by member states. Only the safety of nuclear power plants is a European concern…

That is true.  Under the Euratom Treaty of 1957, most nuclear power issues are subject to the sovereignty of the member states. The Commission does nothing for security, keyword EIA Directive. It could make suggestions.

It is also true that the Commission does not directly subsidize new nuclear installations or lifetime extensions in the member states, but it authorises state aid under EU competition law, such as with Hinkley Point C or for the extension of Tihange1 and Doel 1 and 2, all of that without environmental impact assessment.

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In addition, the EU continues to approve funds for the construction of new nuclear power plants in Europe.

Yes. The new nuclear power plant in the UK, Hinkley Point C, is only possible through state aid approved by the Commission. This means that British taxpayers are financing the construction of the power plant to later allegedly purchase cheap nuclear power – a classic naïve fallacy. In the Finnish Olkiluoto, construction has been underway for a long time for a new reactor block. The costs have skyrocketed from the planned €3 billion to more than €8 billion. Accordingly, the construction time has been delayed by years.

There are opinions that nuclear power plants can certainly be an alternative to renewable energies. Others demand that the latest energy plan of the Commission should no longer deliberately push renewable energies into the background. Which opinion do you represent?

In any case, the Commission is allowing the old coal and nuclear path to continue. Many of our energy experts say that the cheap electricity from depreciated coal and nuclear power plants clogs the nets and even hampers the development of renewable energies.

We currently have plenty of electricity and are mainly exporting to Eastern Europe. Coal and nuclear power clog up the networks to such an extent that renewables do not come into play at all.

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