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Poor outlook for the nuclear industry in Europe

Nuclear Power in the European Union, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, 26 April 2021 by Mycle Schneider   Analysis

The issue of nuclear power has been with the European Union since the very beginning of the nuclear age. Where are operating nuclear power plants in the world? Who is building new reactors? What happened in the European region after Chernobyl and the Fall of the Berlin Wall?

26 April 2021 by Mycle SchneiderThis analysis is part of our dossier “Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster“.

The issue of nuclear power has been with the European Union since the very beginning of the nuclear age. French and British scientists were involved in the Manhattan Project, the development of the first nuclear weapons in the United States, and were able to share their new scientific knowledge with their colleagues at home after the Second World War. France and Britain rapidly developed their own nuclear weapons programs, and many European countries had their own military nuclear ambitions including—quite surprisingly—countries like Belgium, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.

The Euratom Treaty, signed in 1957, established the European Atomic Energy Community with the purpose of “the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries”. It did not go as fast and as successfully as imagined. But in 1979, while the United Kingdom had 33 operating units, there were only a total of 58 reactors connected to the grid in what today are the EU27 Member States. By the end of the 1980s the fleet reached already its historic all-time high with 136 units in operation (see Figure 1). Only 106—30 less than in 1989—were left as of the end of 2020, about one quarter of the world total, with more than half (56) operated in just one country, France, while the remaining 50 units are located in 12 other Member States. The vast majority of the plants, 87 units or over 80 percent, are located in seven of the western countries, and only 19 are operating in the six newer Member States.

The region has not seen any significant nuclear 

building-activity since the 1980s. While only 14 reactors were started up over the past 30 years, a total of 39 units ceased operation in the EU27, a net negative balance of 25 reactors. The decline of the industry has started decades ago.

Nuclear Construction – Little and Late

Since the Chernobyl disaster started unfolding 35 years ago, there have been only four construction starts in the western part of the EU27, two of which are still under construction, Olkiluoto-3 in Finland since 2005 and Flamanville-3 in France since 2007. Only two reactors were connected to the EU27-grid over the past 20 years, both in Eastern Europe with one unit each in the Czech Republic and Romania, none since Cernavoda-2 started up in 2007. Two reactors are still under construction in Slovakia (Mochovce-3 and -4), where construction started in… 1985. Maybe the first one will finally be connected to the grid in 2021.

The Finnish and French construction sites were meant to be the industrial demonstration of superior technology and engineering capacities leading to the first European Pressurized Water Reactors (EPR) ever built. Olkiluoto-3 (OL3) was meant to start generating power in 2009, followed by Flamanville-3 (FL3) in 2012. Instead, the projects turned into an industrial disaster and a financial fiasco – EPR seems to stand for European Problem Reactor. The projects have encountered numerous technical issues, from concreting to welding, with repeated quality-control problems. The EPR development was originally triggered by the Chernobyl accident, but 35 years later not a single EPR is operating in Europe (two have started up in China). The EPR case is also illustrating the very long lead times in the industry.

OL3 is currently scheduled to begin electricity generation by the end of 2021, with a 12-year delay, 16 years after construction start. The Finnish government had counted on OL3 as a low-carbon power source and had to substitute by other means of power generation, electricity imports, or the purchase of certificates to meet its climate obligations.

FL3 will be connected to the grid in 2023, at the earliest, if ever. The builders are still struggling with conceptual issues, non-conformities in the fabrication of parts, and inappropriate execution of specific tasks. The French Court of Accounts has estimated that total project costs would reach €19 billion. However, that estimate did not take into account the latest series of mishaps. When the decision was made to build the plant, almost 20 years ago, it was supposed to cost €2.5 billion………………………….

Old Machines – Expensive and Unreliable

As a consequence of the lack of construction, the average age of the EU’s nuclear fleet has been increasing constantly and stands now at over 35 years on average. The age distribution shows that the vast majority—89 of 106—of the EU’s nuclear reactors have been in operation for 31 years and beyond. The ageing atomic fission machines become increasingly unreliable. In Belgium, with seven units now the second largest fleet in the EU, the average real output in 2018 dropped to less than half of what would have been expected at nominal capacity. In fact, on an average 180 days the reactors did not generate power at all, not a single kilowatt-hour. The EU’s largest nuclear generator, France, has its own problems with maintenance outages that become impossible to forecast. In 2019, the country counted 5,580 reactor-days with zero production. That was 1,700 reactor-days with no output more than planned. In 2020, nuclear generation dropped by another 12 percent to a 27-year low. The world’s largest nuclear operator, the state-controlled Électricité de France (EDF), has lost control over outage durations.

In 2020, nuclear plants have generated just over 700 Terawatt-hours (billion kilowatt-hours or TWh) in the EU27, a spectacular drop of almost 80 TWh or 11 percent compared to the previous year, while all renewable energy technologies increased their output by a combined 80 TWh. At the same time, electricity consumption dropped by over 100 TWh, in particular due to the COVID-19 pandemic and fossil-fuel-based power plants reduced generation by over 110 TWh. As a consequence, for the first time the share of renewable power generation including hydro (39 percent) outperformed fossil fuels (36 percent) according to Eurostat estimates, which indicate that the carbon footprint of the power sector dropped by 14 percent. While the figures are not yet available, it is already certain that non-hydro renewables generated more power than nuclear plants in 2020. Less consumption, less fossil fuels, less nuclear, more renewables and lower emissions in the end. Remains to be seen whether proactive climate-protection policy will be able to make up for the effects of the global pandemic………….

May 22, 2021 - Posted by | EUROPE, politics

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