Brussels weighs the cost of another century of nuclear power

The UK plans to stop processing nuclear waste in 2018, but has no plans to abandon nuclear power. [Jared and Corin/Flickr]

The European Commission is supposed to make regular assessments of the member states’ nuclear installations, a task that has not been carried out since 2008. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

On Monday (4 April), Brussels published its latest report on a potential EU-wide nuclear programme, known as the Nuclear Illustrative Programme (PINC). This was a highly anticipated document: it is the first time the European executive has drafted an embryonic EU nuclear policy (an area over which it has no competence) since the Fukushima disaster.

129 reactors in service

In its introduction, this document laid out the basic facts about nuclear power in the EU. The 129 reactors in service in 14 member states produce 27% of all the electricity consumed in the EU; the same proportion as renewable energies.

The average age of the nuclear reactors in 29 years, a fact that raises questions over the future of this carbon-free energy source: 90% of the EU’s nuclear energy capacity will have to be replaced, in one way or another, by 2050. Around 900,000 people are currently employed, directly or indirectly, in the European nuclear industry.

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It should come as no surprise that the PINC foresees a slight decline in European nuclear energy production in the years to come. With the planned closure of all of Germany’s nuclear power stations and the imminent end of the operating life-cycle of a number of reactors, the share of nuclear power in Europe’s energy mix will fall to around 20% by 2025. It should then pick up again from around 2030, as the first in a new generation of reactors comes online.

A nuclear future

For the Commission, there is no question of the bloc following the example set by Germany, which has committed to phasing out nuclear power altogether, or Italy, which has cancelled plans to build new reactors. Nuclear power will make up part of the EU’s energy mix until at least the end of this century, and will require a number of significant investments.

In order to stabilise production between 95 and 105 gigawatts electrical (GWe) by 2050, Europe’s energy companies will have to invest between €350 and €450 billion. This will cover the modernisation of the reactors approved by the safety authorities for life-cycle extension, as well as the construction of new reactors.


To accelerate the process and cut development costs, Brussels has recommended that member states harmonise their nuclear safety and authorisation procedures. Under a harmonised system, the approval of a certain type of reactor by one country’s safety inspectors could open the door for its use in other member states: a kind of nuclear Schengen area.

With regard to the back end fuel cycle, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy holds up the French Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (ANDRA) and its Finnish and Swedish counterparts as examples that the other European agencies could learn from. These three agencies are pioneering a new kind of geological disposal facility for high level nuclear waste and spent fuel.

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But the waste generated by this major overhaul of the European nuclear infrastructure will consist of more than just spent fuel rods and processing materials. With 91 reactors already decommissioned, the destruction of nuclear power plants will become an industry in its own right, with a revenue of around €253 billion over the next three decades (€123 billion for dismantling and €130 billion for waste management). It will also generate large amounts of high and low level nuclear waste.

DG Energy estimates that Europe will have to invest a total of €775 billion in nuclear energy by 2050. But this figure should be seen in context. In total, the EU 28 will spend between €3,200 and €4,200 billion on the energy sector over this period.

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