The workshop the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency held jointly last week was very timely because the European Union is at an important juncture, and must consider the role of a variety of energy sources in its electricity mix if it is to achieve its decarbonisation goals, said Massimo Garribba, deputy director general of DG-Energy at the European Commission, adding that those sources include nuclear energy.

Massimo Garribba at the IEA-IAEA webinar on 2 March

The nuclear industry has argued for nuclear energy to be explicitly and positively included in the relevant EU documents, including the Delegated Acts under the Taxonomy for Sustainable Financing. Nuclear energy has been sidelined pending a further evaluation of the Taxonomy’s Do No Significant Harm (DNSH) credentials, and the two first Delegated Acts on the mitigation of climate change are already close to being finalised.


The first session of IEA-IAEA webinar - The Role of Nuclear Power in Electricity: Trends and Projections - held on 2 March, was moderated by Brent Wanner, lead of World Energy Outlook Power Sector Modelling & Analysis at the IEA. Wanner asked Garribba about the "momentum in discussions, particularly on the taxonomy, and the scenarios of nuclear power to 2050." He asked: "Do you think something needs to shift in those discussions to see nuclear power playing the role that is shown in those scenarios?"

Garribba replied: "The fact that we are working on targets in terms of which technology is used to reach them is a very important task. And if we insist on a target, then the role of nuclear energy will actually come out on its own. As far as Europe is concerned, what we are also seeing is the fact that those Member States that intend to use nuclear energy can be a little bit more assertive in the way that they put forward their case. And I think that this will help balance the discussion in the EU as a whole as to whether there is an appetite to have nuclear or not."

That would be the first "condition", he said, while the second condition concerned industry. "We cannot have a situation whereby there are certain energy sources that keep decreasing quite spectacularly their costs and others that don't. I think industry has a full role to play here and this is why it is important to look at alternatives, like the small modular reactors. Can they be a paradigm change, can they be disruptive technologies? We don’t know because we don’t have them yet. It is something we need to keep observing, but I think we need also, in order to connect the safety and security and the licensing conditions that are needed, to create an environment where these discussions can actually come forward."

Climate policies

In his presentation, Garribba outlined the European Green Deal, launched in 2019, that aims for a reduction in the EU's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels), and climate neutrality by 2050. This policy requires action by all sectors of the EU economy, he said. He then described EU strategies for energy system integration and a hydrogen economy, which is "renewables-based but also open to other low-carbon generation options".

"In the EU we have established a very clear direction towards driving our economy towards climate neutrality and our tool is the European Green Deal. The whole energy sector will have to go through an evolution, but we need to keep certain key principles in mind, like energy security and the affordability of energy supply for our citizens," Garribba said. This will also be a tool to help with the post-pandemic economy recovery, he added.

"We need to accelerate and to do so we have increased our intermediate - 2030 - target, towards a 65% reduction of CO2 emissions. And in order to do that we need to make sure that this links in with economic recovery as well, and so well-functioning markets and securing energy supply are two of the keys we need. As part of the Green Deal we put in place last July a new strategy for energy system integration and a hydrogen strategy for a climate neutral Europe. In Europe we are pushing for a strategy that is based on renewables, but that works on putting together all low-carbon energies in order to arrive at of zero emissions," he said.

Referring to the EU's commitment under the Paris Agreement for net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, he said renewables alongside nuclear generated electricity are "the backbone" of this objective.

"It's an interesting tension because we have an overall objective but at the same time, by treaty, we have freedom of choice by EU Member States that are indeed free to choose their energy sources as they want. In fact we see that nuclear energy is now - and will be in the future - one of those sources that we believe can work together with the more variable parts of the energy mix in order to achieve a balance," he said.

Freedom of choice

As a party to the Paris Agreement, the EU wants to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to be climate neutral by 2050, but its efforts for this pre-date the European Green Deal, he said. "We started in 2018, so before the Green Deal, with a Clean Planet for All package that started by putting forward a number of scenarios for the decarbonisation path. These scenarios were very much in line with what has been [presented] in the IEA's scenarios."

"Clean Planet for All provides for national energy and climate plans. When we analyse them we see that a substantial number of Member States, like France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Netherlands explicitly refer to nuclear energy for both meeting their climate targets but also for ensuring energy security," he said.

"And then there are those that go beyond this, namely the ones that are also interested in different technologies that can be linked to energy innovation activity. I'm speaking about something like small modular reactors that can replace medium-sized plants, like coal plants, especially in Central Europe, but also features like enhanced safety performance, higher resilience in terms of safeguards and security, reduced generation of radioactive waste, but also - and I think this is key for the functioning of the overall energy and electric system - increased flexibility in installations with a larger percentage of renewables, which are on the grid," he said.

Research and innovation

Research is ongoing into how these emerging technologies can be part of the decarbonisation effort, he said. These include the Euroatom research and training programme, which analyses innovative ways to deliver enhanced nuclear safety, reduced nuclear waste and costs, increased competitiveness, and high operational flexibility, he said.

"We are also engaged in the commissioning of a European strategy for SMRs that ranges from electricity generation, but looks at other uses like hydrogen generation, desalination and so on. We are discussing these matters directly with industry and we've also been discussing with our partners in the US and with our Japanese friends, and in the months to come we intend to look in detail into predictable, streamlined and common licensing processes for SMRs, the creation of a nuclear supply chain, and decreasing costs, which has been a key feature of solar. This has not been matched by the more traditional nuclear power plants at least on the European scene, where, as you know, we had a number of difficulties in the past years to put online additional capacity."

Long-term operation

Low-carbon energy sources account for more than 60% of the EU's electricity mix. In 2019, this was split between renewables & biofuels with a 34.7% share and nuclear with 26.4%.

"Nuclear energy in the EU already represents 307 units, which is more than 100 GWe of production," Garribba said, adding that nuclear is "basically on a par" with renewables as a low-carbon source of energy in the bloc.

The contribution of nuclear energy is thanks to plants that have been in operation for decades and so are now approaching the expiry of their operating licences, he said, adding that long-term operation (LTO) of these existing units "needs to be looked at".

"There is a future we project where we have in 2050 80% of electricity from renewables, 15% from nuclear and the rest to achieve zero carbon. It means that by 2030-2035 we either go through a massive programme of new nuclear build or the scenario will be completely different. That's because many of the reactors we do have will reach not only 50 but also 60 years of life," he said.

He noted the recent announcement by French regulator ASN of its "generalised opinion" in support of the continued operation of France's 900 MWe units. "They are the oldest piece of the puzzle over there, so this is an important step," he said.

The investment required for 10-20 years of LTO in the EU's existing nuclear fleet is about EUR50 billion, he said, while investment required for new build by 2050 is EUR350-450 billion, he said. That would mean about 10 GWe of existing units and 90 GWe of new ones, according to a bar chart on one of his presentation slides.

Critical discussion

"There are very critical discussions going on at the moment. Everyone is aware of the discussion on the issue of taxonomy and the financing of different energy sources," he said. "The Commission is converging on the first Delegated Act this year that will not include nuclear energy. We have a clear understanding that, when you look at the criteria which are central to the taxonomy, the criterion for low-carbon is completely fulfilled [by nuclear], whereas, Do No Significant Harm is the one that is under debate at the moment."

Referring to the Commission's decision last year to appoint its Joint Research Centre (JRC) as the group of experts that will assess nuclear under the sustainable finance taxonomy, he said: "We have charged our scientific arm, the JRC, to prepare a report on this, which will then be scrutinised by two committees composed of Member States, and then the Commission will take a decision on how we go forward and whether the DNSH principle is fulfilled, or not."

Looking beyond 2050, Garribba pointed to the international effort on the Iter fusion project, which he said shows how important it is "to enlarge the panorama" of sustainable technologies.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

Date: Tuesday, 09 March 2021
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