Europe’s Nuclear Revival Plans Risk Being Too Little, Too Late

Europe’s Nuclear Revival Plans Risk Being Too Little, Too Late

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European leaders are trying to move past decades of neglect to spur a renaissance in nuclear energy. The fear is that it may already be too late.

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Bloomberg News

John Ainger and Jonathan Tirone

Published Mar 21, 2024  •  3 minute read

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0vq14kch8sh}oednnhk2g34)_media_dl_1.png Source: BloombergNEF

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(Bloomberg) — European leaders are trying to move past decades of neglect to spur a renaissance in nuclear energy. The fear is that it may already be too late. 

The region has set stiff targets for lowering emissions and ensuring energy security by the middle of the century, emboldening nuclear proponents who say the technology can help solve both issues. 

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Yet massive upfront costs and repeated delays to new innovations, like small modular reactors, mean the sector will struggle just to maintain its current share of the energy mix. In Germany, it’s already been phased out completely.

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A group of a dozen countries, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, will join a first-ever nuclear summit on the edge of Brussels Thursday to push the European Union to stop the rut. Twin climate and energy crises should catapult atomic energy to the center of the bloc’s industrial strategy, they say, and time is running out for new investments to make a meaningful contribution to the bloc’s climate goals, given long lead times for reactors.

The meeting’s location is symbolic. Leaders and delegates from countries including China and the US will gather under the 100-meter high Atomium, a nine-balled metallic homage to the bright future for nuclear power that was built as the centerpiece of Belgium’s 1958 World Expo. Seven decades later, the country has put the brakes on its own nuclear exit, extending its two remaining reactors by 10 years.

“We have a tradition of more than 70 years in nuclear,” said Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Prime Minister, ahead of the Nuclear Energy Summit. “From a net-zero and geopolitical perspective, it’s crucial European countries play a role in that. We need nuclear.”

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped to spur renewed interest in the technology in Europe. Proponents say renewables won’t be able to meet all of the bloc’s energy needs due to the amount of space they take up and the need for a back-up if the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Atomic power can also help to produce hydrogen for industry, another fuel that is at the center of Europe’s energy security plans.

But decades of neglect won’t be easily undone. While China has 23 nuclear reactors under construction, the EU has just two — one in Slovakia and one in France. Germany, once a pioneer, exited atomic generation last year as part of a long-planned response to public safety concerns. 

Development of small modular reactors, which are considered suitable replacements for fossil fuel plants, have drawn interest from 15 EU member states, but are still at least a decade away from conceivably being put into serial production. 

China and Russia, meanwhile, already have them in operation.

Much of Europe and the US still rely on Russia’s nuclear-fuel cycle to power their reactors. They lack capacity in key heavy industries, like specialty steel-making, needed to build more plants. Nuclear scientists during the sector’s heyday are nearing retirement, and it’s not clear that enough local talent exists to re-fill the ranks. The EU’s Joint Research Center’s department to specifically support the industry has suffered a budget cut of 20%.

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But the biggest challenges are finance and finding investors. The average capital cost of a new reactor in France is $9 million per megawatt, three times more than in China, according to BloombergNEF. 

The Nuclear Alliance, a group of around 12 EU countries led by France lobbying for nuclear to be put on par with renewables, wants the European Investment Bank to help lower those costs in order to spur a ‘nuclear renaissance,’ according to a draft declaration seen by Bloomberg.

Even without adding new capacity, the investments needed to replace the current generation of aging reactors, many operating on borrowed time, is “mind boggling,” said Yves Desbazeille, the Director General of Nuclear Europe, a Brussels-based trade group. “There is no one single barrier but many.”

The math is equally challenging for SMRs, with high inflation and rising interests driving up their costs. NuScale Power Corp., the first US developer with a licensed design, originally foresaw average generation costs of $55 a megawatt hour in 2016 before estimates more than doubled last year. 

Investors are now questioning the logic of the technology — NuScale lost 35% of its market value on Tuesday after Wells Fargo called investor enthusiasm “misguided,” with the company still looking for its first customer.

“We must be aware that there is a pinch of hype in all this discussion about SMRs,” said Michael Futterer, a senior expert at the EU’s Joint Research Center. “I don’t want to pull the carpet from under the feet of the SMR hype, but we should be realistic.”

—With assistance from Ewa Krukowska.

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