Will Europe succeed in returning to nuclear power? Perhaps it's too late

Luc Williams

Rigid scope goals reducing greenhouse gas emissions set by governments on the Old Continent, as well as assurances of energy security by mid-century, have emboldened nuclear energy advocates who say the technology can help solve both problems.

However, huge upfront costs and repeated delays in introducing new innovations such as small modular reactors mean that the nuclear power sector will struggle to maintain its current share of the energy mix.

During the first ever nuclear summit in Brussels a group of a dozen or so countries led by French President Emmanuel Macrontried to get the European Union to put an end to its routine.

Nuclear energy advocates argue that the twin climate and energy crises should bring nuclear energy to the center of the EU's industrial strategy. However, there is a problem – given the long deadlines for building new nuclear reactors, time is running out for new investments that will significantly contribute to achieving the bloc's climate goals.

“We have over 70 years of tradition in the field of nuclear energy,” he said Alexander De Croo, Prime Minister of Belgium, before the nuclear energy summit. “From a net zero and geopolitical perspective, European countries play a key role in this. We need nuclear energy.”

Nuclear energy will constitute less than 1% by 2050. energy mix. By mid-century, renewable energy sources will dominate the energy mix / Bloomberg

Nuclear energy to the rescue

Russia's invasion of Ukraine helped to rekindle the interest of European countries in this technology. Nuclear supporters claim that renewable energy sources will not be able to meet all the bloc's energy needs.

In their opinion, the weakness of renewable energy is that wind and solar farm installations will have to occupy huge areas. A major challenge is also the instability of these sources, which, depending on weather conditions, produce too little or too much energy, which necessitates the construction of energy storage facilities.

In addition nuclear energy it could also help produce hydrogen for industry, another fuel that is at the heart of Europe's energy security plans.

Decades of neglect

But decades of neglect cannot be easily repaired. While 23 nuclear reactors are being built in China, the EU has only two new projects, one in Slovakia and one in France.

Germany, once a pioneer in nuclear energy, stopped producing nuclear energy last year.

Development small modular reactors (SMR), that are considered suitable replacements for fossil fuel power plants have attracted interest from 15 EU Member States, but are still at least ten years away from entering series production.

Meanwhile China and Russia they already have them in use.

Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency believes that “it is far too late” for nuclear power to save ambitious zero-emission plans. “I would prefer that we did not see such a decline in nuclear energy, especially in Europe.” – Birol said.

Mounting problems

A large part Europe and the United States continues to use Russian nuclear fuel to power its reactors. Moreover, they lack the production capacity in key heavy industries needed to build more plants.

Another problem is staff shortages. Scientists who worked on nuclear energy during the sector's heyday are now retiring, and it is unclear whether there are enough suitably skilled workers to replace them.

However, the biggest challenges are finances and finding investors. According to BloombergNEF, the average capital cost of a new reactor in France is $9 million per megawatt, three times higher than in China.

Nuclear energy does not benefit from the support of international financial institutions,” said Rafael Grossi, CEO International Atomic Energy Agency.

France's nuclear investment costs are three times higher than in China / Bloomberg

Huge amounts of money are needed

A group of about 12 EU countries, led by France, lobbying for equating nuclear energy with renewable energy sources, I want to European Investment Bank helped reduce these costs to spur a nuclear renaissance.

Meanwhile, even without adding new capacity, gigantic investments are needed to replace the current generation of aging reactors, many of which have been operating much longer than originally expected, says Yves Desbazeille, CEO of Nuclear Europe, a Brussels-based trade group.

The development of small SMR reactors also faces some barriers, as high inflation and rising interest rates increase their costs. NuScale Power, the first U.S. SMR contractor with a licensed project, originally projected average generation costs of $55 per megawatt hour in 2016. Last year, this level – according to new estimates – more than doubled.


Luc's expertise lies in assisting students from a myriad of disciplines to refine and enhance their thesis work with clarity and impact. His methodical approach and the knack for simplifying complex information make him an invaluable ally for any thesis writer.