Nuclear energy is being outstripped by renewable energy globally, but despite safety risks and rising costs of new generation reactors, there is still no end in sight for nuclear power – also in Europe. EURACTIV Germany reports.
In recent years, there has been a perception, largely promoted by the media and politicians, that atomic energy is experiencing something of a renaissance.
But a World Nuclear Industry Status report has blown that myth out of the water.
Currently, China is the only country throwing significant investment into nuclear power. The rest of the world is not following suit.
Worldwide, growth in atomic energy is flagging, said nuclear expert Mycle Schneider who presented the report in Berlin this week. According to the research, the number of new reactors being built has fallen for the third year in a row. 67 were built in 2013, while by the midpoint of this year, only 58 saw the light. That puts the global total at 402 functioning reactors.
“Nuclear energy has found competition tough, especially from renewables,” Schneider told EURACTIV.de.
That is also true in pro-nuclear China. Of the ten reactors restarted in 2015, eight were located in China, one in Russia and the other in South Korea. Of the eight new nuclear construction projects started in 2015, six were Chinese. As a result, Asia ranked fourth globally in terms of its market share in nuclear energy.
But a “Fukushima effect” has been noticed, insisted Schneider, who has advised the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Commission, among other bodies.
Renewable energy investment in China has shot up from $54 billion in 2013 to $103 billion last year. By comparison, in the US, which gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear, investment increased from $33 billion to $44 billion in the same period. In the UK, it was upped from $12 billion to $22 billion.
However, in Europe, despite the trend towards clean energy picking up pace, nuclear energy remains a part of the immediate future. France and Britain, in particular, are still pressing ahead with new generation nuclear projects, including the controversial Hinkley Point C and Flamanville reactors, which have both experienced rising costs and delays.
Even in Germany, which five years ago decided to phase out nuclear power completely, no end is firmly in sight. Economic and infrastructure expert Christian von Hirschhausen told EURACTIV that although the last of Germany’s eight reactors is due to be taken off the grid by 2020, researchers at Berlin’s Technical University and Economic Research Institute (DIW) continue to press on with nuclear research as much as ever.
“Germany’s nuclear research was once a global leader,” admitted von Hirschhausen, “but from an economic perspective, fusion reactors are pointless, a waste of money.”
This is also a matter of safety concerns. Detecting defects is an endless task of Sisyphean proportions for security agencies, as aptly demonstrated by Belgium’s Tihange 2 and Doel 3 reactors, warned von Hirschhausen. He also recalled how in Aachen, just 60km from the Tihange facility, iodine tablets have been distributed.
But there are means of pressure available to Germany, claimed the nuclear expert: “Germany could opt out of, among other things, the IAEA and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).” Even though half of EU member states either do not use nuclear power or have phased it out, the Euratom treaty endures.
Brussels wants to strengthen nuclear investment and develop smaller, more flexible reactors. In a Commission strategy draft, dated May, the executive insists that the “technological superiority” of Europe’s nuclear sector should be defended.
Moreover, funding from the EFSI and the EU’s research programmes should be provided, through the European Investment Bank (EIB).
Even though Germany’s environment and economic affairs ministers, Barbara Hendricks and Sigmar Gabriel, labelled the Commission’s plans irresponsible, Germany would be directly involved if the plan were to be given the green light, due to the involvement of the EIB.
EU reference scenario
A few weeks ahead of the next UN climate conference, due to start in Marrakech on Monday (7 November), the Commission presented its new Reference Scenario on developments in the energy and transport sector, as well as the state of greenhouse gas emissions at an EU level.
In it, Brussels outlines that the share of nuclear power in the energy mix will remain high and even envisages new reactors being built between 2030 and 2050. The EU executive appears to see no other way forward.
Schneider is very critical of this approach, because, in addition to the issue of decommissioning facilities and disposing of waste, the safety aspect remains. He added that countries like France have no choice but to scale back the number of reactors they operate.
“Otherwise, the ageing reactors and the already repeatedly observed deficiencies in safety controls could lead to disaster,” he warned.
Europe’s ageing reactors are costing their operators more and more to run and the average age of the 127 that are found across Europe is more than 30 years.