The future of nuclear energy in the climate transition

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

Picture of Massimo Garribba
Massimo Garribba

Acting Deputy Director-General responsible for the coordination of Euratom policies, Director of nuclear energy, safety and ITER Directorate-General for Energy, European Commission

As a party to the Paris Climate Agreement, the transition to clean energy is at the heart of the European Union’s commitments to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Making the EU the world’s first continental-size region to become climate neutral by 2050 is the key priority of the European Commission. This was clearly set out in the European Green Deal, building also upon the Commission’s strategic long-term vision for a climate-neutral European Union by 2050 – A Clean Planet for All.  However, moving from vision to reality will require all industries to play their part, notably in the energy sector.

Member states are fully competent in deciding their own energy mix within the EU climate and energy framework, and the Commission’s analysis under A Clean Planet for All takes into account these choices and policies. The result is that all the scenarios for climate neutrality by 2050 foresee that more than 80% of electricity will come from renewable energy sources and about 15% from nuclear.

Already today, more than 50% of electricity in the EU comes from low carbon energy sources, with nuclear accounting for almost half of that amount. Several EU member states have traditionally deployed nuclear energy as a low greenhouse gas emission source of baseload power, providing 24/7 dispatchable electricity to fuel industries and to satisfy daily domestic demand.

Despite its potential for decarbonisation, the nuclear sector faces a number of important challenges

However, within the EU there remain major divergences among member states on the future role of nuclear energy. The debates centre around whether or not phasing out nuclear plants and relying solely on renewable sources is both feasible and viable, or if that would actually put a strain on our economies to meet climate targets.

The Commission’s role in this context is to ensure the safest and responsible use of all nuclear and radiation technologies, while guaranteeing non-proliferation of nuclear materials. Under the Euratom Treaty and its derived legislation, the EU today possesses a coherent, comprehensive and enforceable legal framework for the safe use of civil nuclear power, covering the nuclear life cycle from cradle to grave.

On the path towards climate neutrality, the share of electricity in the overall energy consumption will need to increase. Hence, by 2050 nuclear generation capacity should remain at levels similar to the present capacity, but due to the rise in renewables sources, the share of electricity produced by nuclear power will drop from the current level of 26% to 15%. At a time when more low-carbon electricity is required, nuclear power has begun to recede, with a significant number of plants scheduled for closure in the coming decade. At the same time, little new investment is being made.

Despite its potential for decarbonisation, the nuclear sector faces a number of important challenges, such as high capital costs, public acceptance issues, increased competitiveness of other energy sources, and the long-term management of waste. According to the latest nuclear illustrative programme of the Commission (PINC, May 2017), about €400 bn in investments are needed for 80 GW of new nuclear capacity to be installed by 2050, and about €45-50 bn for guaranteeing the safe long-term operations of the ageing existing fleet. Significant investments will also be needed for waste management and decommissioning of closed nuclear power plants.

Fusion technology will also be at the heart of long-term carbon neutrality

Shaping a fully decarbonised economy requires relentless progress in research, development and innovation, including in nuclear technologies. The Commission is equipped with tools – such as the Euratom Research and Training Programme – that will foster such innovations. New reactor technologies that offer a number of improved features and address the challenges faced by the nuclear industry might lead to new perspectives for nuclear power when contributing to climate-neutrality.

From increased innovation, we can expect enhanced safety, higher resilience to proliferation and threats, less radioactive waste, higher operational flexibility, increased standardisation and competitiveness. As of late, the development and application of small and medium-sized reactors (SMRs) has particularly captured the interest of several countries worldwide. The Commission’s priority is that research and innovation ultimately lead to facilities that are safer for people and the environment.

Fusion technology will also be at the heart of long-term carbon neutrality. The European Union leads a major international endeavour in fusion energy development via the ITER project. Fusion is the process that powers the sun and other stars, and it holds great potential to be used as a clean, safe and efficient energy source here on Earth. It will be key to supporting a sustainable decarbonised economy in the second half of this century.

The transition to climate neutrality is doable. It is both a challenge and an opportunity. All economic sectors and parts of society have a role in it, but it is clear that all pathways converge on one central element: energy. Low carbon dispatchable nuclear-generated electricity is suitable for balancing the grid and coupling electricity offer and demand at all times. This feature may prove to be fundamental in a climate-neutral energy system dominated by intermittent renewable energy sources. The application of the highest safety standards in all steps of the nuclear life cycle remains a key pre-requisite for nuclear power to complement renewable sources. Together they will be the backbone of the development of a carbon-free European power system in the decades to come.

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