Promoting nuclear power was long taboo in Brussels, but a high-profile Nuclear Energy Summit sent the message that atomic energy – now touted by its champions as key to fighting climate change – is back. 

At the summit, 32 countries that currently operate nuclear power plants (NPP) or are looking to expand on nuclear energy all over the world adopted a Nuclear Energy Declaration. According to a press release, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the countries reaffirm their “strong commitment to nuclear energy as a key component of our global strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both power and industrial sectors, ensure energy security, enhance energy resilience, and promote long-term sustainable development and clean energy transition”.

The IAEA’s first summit held to promote nuclear energy brought together representatives from some 50 countries – from the EU but also the United States and China – and 25 leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi recalled that at the climate conference COP28 it was agreed to “accelerate” the deployment of nuclear energy. 

Commenting on the summit, German leading climate politician for the Greens in the European Parliament, Michael Bloss, said:

“Nuclear power is a costly dead-end. It’s a massive subsidy game that simply doesn’t pay off.” He added that “building nuclear plants is incredibly expensive, takes ages, and doesn’t even produce enough electricity”.

Michael Bloss, MEP Greens/EFA

In the EU, the nuclear debate divides member states. One group – including Germany, Spain, Austria and Luxembourg – is clearly against its development, while another group – including France, Finland, Hungary and Romania– defends its potential.

Proponents of nuclear energy promote it as a way to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, in accordance with the EU’s climate targets. Those against expanding nuclear energy in Europe point at the high risks, as shown by the reactor disasters in Chernobyl (1986), which was part of the Soviet Union then, and in Fukushima, Japan (2011).

Back in 2021, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen made headlines by arguing the EU needed nuclear power as a “stable source” of energy, and Brussels went on to label it among its list of sustainable investments.

Nuclear reactors are currently in operation in twelve of the 27 EU member states, and two new nuclear power plants are under construction in Slovakia and France. By far the most are located in France. Poland also intends to restart a nuclear energy program and the Czech Republic, too, is planning to build new reactors, although it is not clear yet how many.

France: the EU’s nuclear champion

In the past two years, atomic pioneer France has been decisive in crafting friendlier regulation and putting nuclear back on the EU’s agenda. 56 of the 100 nuclear power plants in Europe are in France. The construction of 14 or possibly more new plants is being considered.

As a nuclear power, France does not only rely on nuclear power for energy supply: France’s Ministry of Defense recently announced that it wanted to enrich material containing lithium in two reactors at the NPP in the small town of Civaux in central France. The rare gas tritium, “a rare gas essential to the weapons of deterrence”, will then be extracted from it.

France is the only member of the European Union to possess nuclear weapons, after the United Kingdom officially left the bloc in 2020. The French Ministry of Defence has announced a collaboration with Électricité de France (EDF), the country’s main energy company, to produce tritium.

By early 2023, France was spearheading the launch of a “nuclear alliance” of a dozen EU members including Poland, Bulgaria, Finland and the Netherlands, with a goal to weigh in on policy.

France and Bulgaria signed an agreement in February in the field of nuclear energy, enabling industrial companies from both countries to participate in the maintenance of existing power plants and in new projects.

In January, Bulgarian Energy Minister Rumen Radev and US Assistant Secretary of Energy for International Affairs, Andrew Light, also signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation on a nuclear project at the Kozloduy NPP site and a civilian nuclear programme in Bulgaria. On March 21, the Bulgarian Parliament voted conclusively to ratify the agreement.

France’s EDF is also one of the bidders for a new reactor in Dukovany (Czech Republic), along with South Korean company KHNP. The Czech government expects official bids in April. Contracts are expected to be signed in late 2024 and early 2025 and the first reactor to start operating in 2036.

European nuclear energy ambitions grow

Romania intends to become a regional leader in the field of nuclear energy, its President Klaus Iohannis said at the Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels. He emphasised that climate change represents “a global challenge”, which requires coordinated action and ambitious measures.

Neighbouring Serbia does not have any experience with nuclear energy, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said at the summit. He said Serbia faced three problems: a lack of know-how and experts on the use of nuclear power, a lack of funding and the present mindset of the people. He added that Serbia is interested in getting at least four small modular reactors (SMRs), but noted that it would need financial support from leading EU states.

In Slovenia, a nuclear power plant has been operating in Krško, near the border with Croatia, since 1983. It generates about 40 percent of the country’s electricity, half of which belongs to Croatia, which co-owns the plant. In November, Slovenian citizens are expected to vote in a consultative referendum on the construction of a new nuclear power plant (Jek2), also in Krško.

Sweden currently has six working nuclear reactors, in Forsmark, Oskarshamn and Ringhals, all built in the 1980s. Six older reactors were closed down between 1999 and 2020. Among them the Barsebäck power plant, which – located in southern Sweden, close to Denmark – for many years was criticised by the neighbouring country. 

In Sweden, the question of nuclear power has been one of the main political issues during the last couple of years. Instead of phasing out the system, which was decided after a non-binding referendum in 1979, the current right-wing government is preparing for a heavy buildup with new reactors, both big and small. After many years of criticism, nuclear power is getting increasingly popular among the population and the political parties. 

The wind turbines in a wind farm stand out of the morning fog. The European Commission presented on Tuesday new measures to boost the European wind power industry to reach the European Union's targets for renewable energy generation by 2030.
Wind turbines in a wind farm stand out of the morning fog. Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa

Renewables remain key in energy debate

Despite the EU’s more accommodating stance, the nuclear vs. renewables debate is still fuelling a standoff between Paris and Brussels: France failed to meet EU-set renewable targets in 2020, but is refusing to make amends – arguing that its carbon footprint is low enough due to nuclear power.

France’s stance is disliked by many environmental activists – and by EU countries like Spain, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg which together form a “Friends of Renewables” alliance within the bloc.

German Green MEP Michael Bloss said: “We need to ramp up efforts on expanding renewable energy. Reviving the nuclear debate now will only stall progress. That’s how we’re jeopardising our leadership in the Green Deal.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has rejected calls for a return to nuclear power in Germany, pointing to high costs and long construction times. Electricity coming from nuclear power plants costs many times more than electricity from wind power, solar energy or other production sources, said Scholz.

Despite having no nuclear power plants, Portugal has extensive legislation on nuclear matters, especially in the radiological field. There are many bodies in different ministries with responsibilities in this area – for example for controlling Spain’s Almaraz nuclear power plant that uses water of the Tagus river (which runs in both countries) for cooling.

The investment is targeted at renewable power sources which supplied 61 percent of Portugal’s electricity in 2023, up from 49 percent a year earlier, hitting a new record after periods of heavy rains, strong winds and good doses of sunshine, grid operator REN said.

Looking outside of the EU, North Macedonia, for example, also does not have any nuclear plants, but it has committed to a coal phase-out by 2027. North Macedonia has drafted the first laws and agreements on strategic investments in the energy sector, to facilitate and speed up investments in renewable electricity plants. The first four projects are solar power plants Pehčevo and Stipion, a cogeneration facility in Skopje and a photovoltaic plant with gas engines.

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