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Uncertainty Over Future of Nuclear, Renewable Energy in Europe

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BRUSSELS (Sputnik), Luc Rivet – The prospects of nuclear energy in Europe are increasingly uncertain amid the drive to cut carbon emissions as well as the need to balance this with a growing distaste for nuclear energy in some EU states.

Nuclear power has been a political issue throughout Europe in recent decades. Nuclear electricity generation peaked in 2005 at 30.8 percent of the European electricity produced, and many countries such as France, Lithuania, Belgium, Sweden, Bulgaria and others producing between 50 and 75 percent of their electricity this way. But since the Fukushima accident in Japan in March 2011, caused by a tsunami, the anti-nuclear movement has gained momentum, especially in Germany and Belgium. The prospects of the nuclear sector in Europe are therefore contrasting. Some countries have banned it, some have opted for the total shutdown of their nuclear power plants, but others continue to build new reactors.

Pros, Cons of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is not a "black and white" issue. Nuclear energy production results in very low CO2 emissions, which explains why France, with its highly developed nuclear energy system, fares well in terms of harmful emissions from electricity production.

Nuclear energy is also one of the cheapest forms of production. New third generation EPR nuclear power plants are being built in the United Kingdom (two at Hinckley point), in Finland (one at Olkiluoto), in France (one at Flamanville). Hungary is considering new Russian models, and Sweden will gradually replace its nine aging reactors.

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The main negative aspects of nuclear energy are the dangers inherent to nuclear radiation, with the risk of accidents, even if, contrary to Chernobyl, all European nuclear units have a double confinement envelope, and the creation of nuclear waste. Some 7,000 cubic meters (247,202 cubic feet) of high-level (long life) nuclear waste are produced across the European Union each year. Another issue is the lack of flexibility of nuclear electricity production.

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Germany and Belgium have been at the forefront of the total closure of nuclear power plants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after the Fukushima accident in Japan, abruptly confirmed the closure of all German nuclear reactors by 2022, triggering an angry reply by the electricity concerns, RWE, E.ON and Vattenfall. They sued the German government for 15 billion euros ($18 billion) for breach of contract. In December 2016, the Karlsruhe constitutional court backed the request of the industrial groups, asking the government to "find a solution by 2018." The compensation will probably be around 20 billion euros.

In Germany, the "green" lobby has been particularly efficient since they were government partners of the Social Democrats of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in power before Merkel, and they conditioned their participation in the government on the phase-out of nuclear electricity production. However, Merkel had second thoughts after Fukushima, feeling she could not prolong the nuclear reactors.

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Eight of the seventeen German nuclear reactors have been closed so far. The electricity generated by nuclear reactors has dwindled from 23 to less than 17 percent in Germany.

For "green" parties, the reasons to abandon nuclear energy go from general pacifism, linking electricity production and military applications, to the risks of terrorism and of accidents, to the existence of nuclear waste polluting the earth, and the will to go for clean energy sources with a very light ecological footprint.

Germany Struggles With Green Goals

Germany had decided it would be the first industrialized country to go for the ultimate "Energiewende" (the energy bend): no more nuclear energy, the full development of renewable sources, such as solar and wind energy, and the suppression of CO2 emissions by power plants by 40 percent by 2020 as compared to 1990, which is double the European goal, and by 55 percent by 2030.

The draft coalition deal agreed by Merkel’s alliance and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on Friday includes a provision on adopting a law to ensure that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 55 percent by 2030. The sides have also agreed to reaffirm climate targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050 as well as to attempt to get 65 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2030.

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However, a few days before the agreement was reached, media reported that the German politicians might have scrapped the emissions goals. The transition from nuclear- and coal-based energy has faced some difficulties in Germany. One of the problems is that nuclear reactors would have to be replaced by intermittent "renewable" energy sources that depend on the sun (no electricity at night) and on the wind (may be difficult to establish steady supply). To compensate for the unreliability of these main sources of energy, Germany has built fossil fuels plants running on gas and coal. These facilities are necessary to complement renewable sources, but fossil power plants emit a lot of carbon dioxide.

Thus, the cost of electricity production by renewable sources is higher than with the non-renewable ones, because the newer energy sources have to be backed up by traditional power plants, in case of wind absence, for example. Besides, the shift to a new mode of electricity production is massively subsidized with public money or "green certificates" paid by the consumers in their electricity bill.

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It explains the fact that the cost of the "Energiewende" for the German households on the one hand and for industry on the other appears astonishingly high: Germany and Denmark, which also champions intermittent renewable sources, especially wind energy, have the most expensive electricity in Europe by far (almost twice higher than in France).

In 2017, the 1 kilowatt per hour cost 0.305 euros ($0.37) to a German household, while a French household had to pay 0.168 euros. When it comes to non-household consumption, the difference is just as pronounced: 0.152 for Germany versus 0.099 for France.

At the same time, France emits much less CO2 than Germany per head. In 1990-2015, Germany was responsible for 20.8 percent of greenhouse gases emissions in the European Union, while France produced 10.7 percent of the total. According to the German Environment Agency, the country emitted 906 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2016, with energy industry responsible for 332 million tonnes. In 2015, the emissions were reported to be at 902 million tonnes.

Nuclear Issues in Politics

The political debate is raging in Germany and Belgium, where it splits the coalition in power. The largest Belgian party, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), refuses to close the nuclear reactors in 2025 as decided before, and the party of the Prime Minister, the Reformist Movement (MR), sticks to decisions taken earlier.

"This is the dilemma in Belgium, as everywhere. Closing the nuclear power plants will mean a hike in CO2 emissions. It represents an increase of 10 million tons of CO2 for Belgium, since the rest of the electrical mix will be from renewables but also gas and coal power plants. Impossible to avoid it. So the Belgians should know what they want: is the main goal the reduction of CO2 emissions?" Damien Ernst, a professor at the University of Liege, told Sputnik.

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According to Ernst, it would be preferable to keep the three most recent nuclear reactors, in Tihange (units 1 and 3) and Doel (unit 4), for 60 years, rather than 40, "until more efficient renewable solutions or storage systems are developed, to reduce CO2 emissions in electricity production."

In Germany, the cost of energy discussion promises to be one of the dominant themes for the next government, next to immigration.

Germany has the same problem as Belgium: renewables that were developed presently still need to be compensated by gas and coal plants, which are emitting CO2 and make it even more difficult to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Liege University expert, the cost of stocking electricity is too high at the moment, so nuclear reactors should be used to complement renewable sources for the time being.

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"While one Megawatt hour of electricity is sold 30 to 40 euros on the market, the battery for stocking costs some 300,000 euros per megawatt hour (MWh). It remains very costly even with a cycle/day for 10 years! So the best interim solution is to keep some nuclear reactors and complement with renewables and combined cycle gas power plants," Ernst said.

Besides, professor Ernst advocates the creation of a world grid, an electrical grid covering the whole planet and connecting the largest production plants.

"The world grid would for example tap the wind resources of the Kerguelen islands in the South Indian Ocean and make it possible to deliver the energy produced by intermittent sources from and to each part of the world: Europe, the Americas, Asia," the expert said.

Nuclear energy has to provide a better price if it wants to compete with gas or a potential global grid of renewable sources.

"If the nuclear industry wants a future in Europe, it needs to fight on prices: gas remains a very good source of energy, with North American shale gas available as well as the immense Russian reserves and production. The other option is the global grid of renewables. To beat these solutions, the nuclear MWh price must remain under 50 euros," Ernst said.

For Green energy experts, nuclear energy will never be the solution. It is too dangerous, and Greenpeace has proven it repeatedly, for example showing very recently that spent fuel is not protected well enough in Belgian or French nuclear power plants. Moreover, the nuclear waste issue is not solved even with the new generations of nuclear reactors.

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Laws have been passed in Germany and in Belgium to get out of nuclear power generation in the short term. It is up to the electricity producers to come up with solutions. In Germany, Siemens’ chairman, Peter Loescher, has fully supported the German government's planned energy transition to renewable energy technologies, calling it a "project of the century" and saying "Berlin's target of reaching its renewable energy target by 2020 was feasible." Siemens has ended plans to cooperate with Rosatom, the Russian state-controlled nuclear power company, in the construction of dozens of nuclear plants throughout Russia in 2011 already.

"It is very possible to close the nuclear reactors and still continue to reduce the emissions of CO2, at a good pace, in order to reach the target of the COP21 agreement in Paris and reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. The decentralized production of energy through different technologies is increasing, with a greater flexibility on demand and on production. Nuclear energy cannot follow suit; it is too rigid and that is the problem. The investment for building new nuclear power plants demands a 40-year payback period. But it won’t be necessary. Belgium and Germany have made their choices." Bram Claeys at the University of Ghent, who is the former EU policy adviser on energy issues for Greenpeace and chairman of ODE, the Organization for Sustainable Energy, told Sputnik.

Belgium’s Federal Planning Bureau (Bureau du Plan) produced a study in October 2017 proving that the phasing-out of nuclear energy between 2023 and 2025 can take place in Belgium, while the reduction of CO2 emissions continues with a 25% reduction as compared to the levels of 1990.

"The production of electricity by renewable sources increases and it can go hand in hand with the development of a network of flexible gas power plants, with a combined cycle, that emit very little CO2. Calculations of the Belgian Planning office (Bureau du Plan) show that this model functions and makes it possible to further reduce C02 emissions. Reduction of CO2 will also come from electric mobility. Electric cars replace turbo-combustion engines. With the production of clean electricity to feed the cars, this will accelerate the virtuous cycle," Claeys said.

Future for Nuclear Energy in Europe?

Despite the fierce opposition of ecologists across the continent, the nuclear power industry still hopes to be able to deliver the best solutions in the coming decades to produce cheap electricity with the fourth-generation of power plants, creating much less nuclear waste and with projects further away, such as non-pressurized power plants using thorium. Many nuclear power plants are being built in the world, with Russian, Chinese and US companies often replacing the European firms of the sector in the development of new projects.

On the other hand, the supporters of the green views — and their number grows in government and business decision centers across Europe – believe that both goals can be reached at the same time: abandoning nuclear energy and continuing to reduce CO2 emissions. The next 10 years will be decisive for these energy choices of the future.

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