Foratom: ‘Balance of power in the EU is shifting against nuclear’

The abandoned Satsop Nuclear power plant in the state of Washington, US. [sharkhats / Flickr]

Eastern EU countries have a positive opinion of nuclear energy while others like Belgium and Spain are shifting against, says Yves Desbazeille. The big question for the industry is whether Germany will turn even more anti-nuclear than it already is, he says. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

Yves Desbazeille is Director General of Foratom. He spoke to Pavol Szalai, senior editor at EURACTIV Slovakia.

Which countries in Europe do you see defending nuclear energy?

Right now, we are losing the UK as a member of the European Union, and it is a very powerful promoter of nuclear energy. Brexit will obviously be a big loss for the nuclear industry. The question is: What will France’s position be? Will it be more vocal when it comes to civil nuclear or not? This is a very difficult question to answer these days.

In Eastern Europe, the Visegrad Group holds a very positive opinion of nuclear energy. Finland is also a pro-nuclear country. Sweden tends to follow the direction of the pro-nuclear countries but is quite shy about it.

Then there are Spain and Belgium, whose views are very unclear. It is difficult to consider them pro-nuclear. All in all, the balance of power in the European Union is shifting against nuclear energy. The situation is not as good as it used to be.

The big question is whether Germany will become an even more antinuclear country.

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Last October, the French Council of State (supreme court) annulled the government’s decision to close the country’s oldest nuclear power plant, Fessenheim, which is located on the German border. Is that a sign that France is going more pro-nuclear?

The decision on Fessenheim is not a sign of anything. It is a minor judicial issue. It is not difficult to issue another decree. I don’t see a new approach to Fessenheim in France. I don’t think EDF will fight for it to be extended.

Yet, there has been a change in the French government. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, a former anti-nuclear activist, resigned in the summer, citing nuclear policy as one of the reasons. Is that good news for you?

It is too early to say. We will see how President Emmanuel Macron decides on the future of nuclear power in France. There will be an announcement at the end of November. My feeling is that France will not decide to phase-out nuclear. It might reduce the share of nuclear power from 70+% to 50%.

Polish Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski has said that Poland needs nuclear power. In the past, Poland has discussed a new nuclear power plant a lot, but no plans have ever materialised. Will it be different this time?

In Poland, there are good political signals suggesting a decision is imminent. But it is still pending. We need a final endorsement from the government. Right now, we are only hearing from the Energy Minister. You can’t prejudge the result.

When I interviewed you in Bratislava in June, you were expecting a decision soon in Poland. Now it seems the decision has been postponed again.

It has already been postponed a couple of times. But now would be the perfect timing for the Polish government to announce it – before COP24 in Katowice.

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Poland has recently aligned more closely with the United States on several issues, including energy. Are you worried that when it finally decides to build a nuclear power plant, it will choose US technology and not the French and European one?

I cannot comment on Poland’s choice of technology. But I can say that in general we welcome new nuclear developments and encourage countries to use the European supply chain. We also like to see new nuclear operators being trained. And in terms of the balance of power in Europe, we would only welcome it if Poland chose to join the group of member states with nuclear power plants.

As Director General of Foratom, you represent European associations and companies. The Visegrad countries are generally pro-nuclear, but in terms of new builds there is Russian technology in Slovakia and Hungary, and there may be US technology in Poland. Are you concerned?

We don’t comment on choices regarding Russian or any other technology. At the Paks II site in Hungary, there will be a lot of local companies and European contractors. I cannot comment on the legal issue of competition. The European Commission ruled that Hungary’s decision was in line with competition law and that is also our position.

Last May, the French bank Lazard released an analysis on the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for various sources in North America. Solar stands at $50 per MWh, while nuclear energy reaches $148 per MWh. What is the best way of funding new nuclear reactors?

The question of which technology is more expensive is a really tricky one. The LCOE doesn’t tell us the whole story at all. It doesn’t take into account the costs incurred in the system.

A recent study by the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency entitled “The Full Costs of Electricity Provision” concluded that once a lot of renewables have been integrated into the system, the costs will be very, very high.

Another way of putting it is to consider the market value of each source of generation. The more renewables there are in the system, the lower their market value. When it comes to wind, there is either too much production or none. The same is true of solar, even though it is more predictable.

When the market value falls to zero, we don’t know what to do. The electricity supply becomes dependent on backup sources, but they are not rewarded.

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How can new nuclear builds be funded?

We have to reward technologies which are easily dispatched. Nuclear is a dispatchable low-carbon source. It is secure and stable. But the markets do not reward this aspect. Hence, we propose this should be included in the new EU legislation on market design.

You are questioning the LCOE method, but it is used by a well-respected investment bank.

The LCOE approach is based on the assumption that the merits of all technologies are the same and that’s why I consider it a bit outdated. But their capabilities of electricity dispatch and flexibility are not the same. Wind and sun cannot be predicted more than three days ahead. So, we still need backup capacities – as we see in Germany – that correspond to peak demand.

At the same time, countries are increasingly interconnected, grids have been digitalised and battery technologies is developing. Doesn’t all this help renewables become a stable source of energy?

Smart grids and even electric vehicles that supply the grids are certainly a move in the right direction. However, one problem is not being addressed. When there is virtually no wind for a long time, we need to deploy either effective battery capacities or hydro pump storage in less than one hour to maintain the electricity supply. We are very far from a situation in which easily dispatched sources are no longer needed.

The nuclear industry would obviously prefer a European carbon price floor. What are the chances of that being introduced in Europe?

Introducing a carbon price floor is a very important topic. Carbon-based production comes with externalities.

However, a carbon price floor can be considered a tax. So, we would need unanimity among the member states. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. Some countries are attempting to implement it on the national level, but there are caveats. You can tax carbon in your own country, but you cannot ban imports of highly carbonised power.

If France set up a national carbon tax on fossil-fuel sources, it would also have to tax German imports. The result would not be good.

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Who is blocking unanimity? Germany?

Germany would not jeopardise this idea. It wants to be seen as a climate policy leader, but for example Poland wouldn’t agree to introducing such a solution.

Ahead of the December COP24, the European Commission will publish the new EU climate strategy. Will it push for nuclear energy in Europe?

“Push” is a big word. Hopefully, the Commission will consider nuclear energy as part of the solution. The question is, how important a part of the solution? The strategy should be consistent with the 2017 Nuclear Illustrative Program (PINC).

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Are you disappointed that the EU has not updated the greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 and is sticking to the 2014 target of 40%?

The European Parliament has even called for a target of 55%, But the question is how can we make sure that we can even get to 40%? There is no guarantee. In the new Clean Energy Package, there are no instruments at all that would enable us to reach 40%.

Energy efficiency and renewables are discussed as solutions. But we believe nuclear energy is the solution, a massive way to decarbonise. You can have whatever figure you want, but if you don’t have the instruments to implement it, it is just a number.

Look at Germany. It developed wind turbines and solar panels at a cost of billions of euros, but the effect is small. Emissions in Germany have been increasing.

When German MEP Rebecca Harms came to the European Nuclear Energy Forum in Bratislava in June, she said nuclear industry would have to dedicate more human and financial resources to decommissioning and spent fuel management. Do you have enough resources for the back end of the cycle?

It’s a difficult question. In order to secure these human resources, we need to be able to offer attractive career prospects to our potential employees: students and experts. This is not the case for example in Germany where politicians and society in general question the future of nuclear energy. Today, the nuclear industry is disregarded there by young professionals.

The industry is totally aware of the importance of the back end. Waste is a big issue – but not because of the lack of solutions for storing it or building repositories. The nuclear industry is prepared for that and has developed appropriate solutions.

The reason is public opinion and the decision-makers. Germany decided to dismantle all its nuclear power plants without having a clear plan of what to do next and how to handle it. In their case, this was a waste of time and money.


The interview was first published under the title “Foratom Chief: Balance of power is shifting against nuclear in the EU” in International Issues & Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs vol. XXVII, No. 3 – 4, 2018, pp. 46 – 50.

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