Lawmakers call for ‘nuclear renaissance’ to support EU’s energy transition

Cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant near the southern Bohemian city of Tyn nad Vltavou, Czech Republic. [FILIP SINGER / EPA]

Renewables will not be enough for Europe to meet its 2050 climate neutrality goal, says a coalition of centrist and conservative MEPs. Instead, the EU will need a nuclear renaissance to achieve it, they argue, referring to a fresh study on the EU’s climate policy.

The report, published on Friday (5 February), was commissioned by two political factions in the European Parliament: the centrist Renew Europe group and the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

Titled “Road to EU Climate Neutrality by 2050,” the report looked more specifically at the cost and spatial requirements of wind and solar versus nuclear in two countries – the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

It concluded that nuclear energy is actually cheaper than wind and solar and that renewables would not be able to meet all the countries’ electricity demand.

“The EU should adopt a ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ programme that places nuclear energy on equal footing with renewable energy,” said Ondřej Knotek, a Czech MEP from the Renew political group.

“EU policies today are discriminative when it comes to nuclear energy. It’s time for all policy makers to live up to the EU principle of technological neutrality,” he added.

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Last year, Warsaw announced that it would seek the EU’s approval to build a nuclear power station based on US technology, saying it is “impossible these days to build a nuclear power plant without state support”.

The Czech government, for its part, said it “has no other choice than nuclear energy” to meet EU climate goals and would only support higher climate targets if Brussels clears a planned state aid request for the construction of a new nuclear block in Dukovany.

In Brussels, the European Commission has adopted an agnostic stance on nuclear, saying it won’t block state aid for new nuclear plants.

However, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans warned about the costs, saying nuclear plants are “very, very expensive” to build.

“If you commit to new nuclear, be aware of the massive, massive levels of investments you will need and be aware of the cost” over the entire life-cycle “which means that you will be stuck with it for a long, long, long time,” he said back in October.

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The European Commission “will not stand in the way” of countries that choose to build new nuclear power stations, said EU climate chief Frans Timmermans, who warned however about the life-cycle costs of the technology, “which means that you will be stuck with it for a long, long, long time”.

The study brushes aside those claims. “In virtually all realistic scenarios, nuclear power is cheaper than wind and solar power in terms of € per MWh in both the Czech Republic and The Netherlands, both at market-based interest rates and at a zero interest rate,” says a summary of the report, which was peer reviewed.

Moreover, the cost advantage of nuclear power increases once system costs are added to the equation, and increases further with higher penetration rates of wind and solar, it argues.

Even in the Netherlands, where there is considerable offshore energy capacity, the country would not be able to rely solely on renewables. And the Czech Republic would struggle even more because it is landlocked and cannot build offshore wind farms.

The EU’s plan to become climate neutral by 2050 “depends on factors that the EU does not control such as technological breakthroughs, demand for energy, the cost of moving towards climate neutrality, the general state of the economy (GDP), population growth, etc.,” the report reads.

The study also concluded that Europe’s 2050 climate neutrality goal would only reduce global warming by 0.05°C and 0.15°C in 2100, assuming factories do not relocate abroad.

“We have a high risk that this is not going to work, that we will not be able to achieve climate neutrality in 2050 or any point thereafter, so let’s at least make sure that the options we choose to fight climate change are no regrets solutions,” said Lucas Bergkamp, the editor of the report.

Betting on a breakthrough

Renewables are variable and can sometimes produce unneeded power, which is currently curtailed when demand is lower than supply. While the Commission considers policies to store excess renewable power in batteries or using it to produce hydrogen, Bergkamp warned these scenarios relied on technological breakthroughs that are yet to happen.

“You cannot, in the near future at least, have an energy storage system that will allow you to power a whole country through batteries,” he told EURACTIV, saying another energy source, like nuclear or fossil fuels, will be needed to provide baseload electricity.

The Commission has taken a hands-off approach to nuclear energy, saying it is up to EU member states to decide their own energy mix. While it does recognise nuclear power as “low carbon,” there is no EU policy support for nuclear because of fierce resistance from countries like Austria.

But Robert Roos, a Dutch lawmaker from the ECR group, believes the Commission now has “to reconsider the way its wants to achieve climate neutrality” and bring nuclear power back into its policy mix.

“I like the idea of phasing out fossil fuel. But I don’t think the way we are doing now is good, and the Commission has to reconsider the way they do it,” he told EURACTIV.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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