Why the EU didn’t include nuclear power in its Russian gas exit plan

Saint Alban les Eaux nuclear power plant, commissioned in 1985, exterior view, town of Saint Maurice l’Exil, department of Isère, France

Eric Bascol | Istock Editorial | Getty Images

For Europe, the war in Ukraine has created an urgent priority to stop being dependent on Russian gas.

The International Energy Agency, a political organization made up of members from 31 national governments, and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, have both recently published plans for how Europe should reach.

The two published plans roughly parallel each other, recommending the EU to focus on renewable energy, efficiency and liquid natural gas imports. However, they differ in one obvious way.

The IEA plan recommends keeping existing nuclear power plants in operation, while the EU plan makes no explicit reference to nuclear power.

Addressing natural gas imports from Russia is no easy feat. Around 25% of EU energy consumption comes from natural gas, according to the EU’s Directorate-General for Energy. And the EU only produces 10% of the natural gas it needs, importing the rest from countries like Russia (41%), Norway (24%) and Algeria (11%).

During a press briefing on Tuesday, Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the EU’s Green New Deal, was asked about nuclear power because it was not listed in the written documents.

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“Member states are free in the choices they make in terms of the energy mix,” Timmermans said, according to a transcript provided to CNBC by a European Commission spokesperson. EU member states are “legally bound” to reduce their emissions, Timmermans said, and “we will support them in the choices they make”.

Timmermans said a reliance on nuclear should be accompanied by equal development of renewables.

“It is conceivable that some member states decide, for example, not to use gas as a transition energy carrier, but then stay a little longer with nuclear or coal than they had imagined,” said Timmermans. “If this is combined with an acceleration of the introduction of renewable energies for the climate and for our energy autonomy, this could be two wins.”

Policy differs by country

Nuclear power does not release harmful greenhouse gases when generated, but the construction of a conventional nuclear power plant may cause some emissions and critics are concerned about the risk of nuclear accidents and how to store radioactive nuclear waste.

Public opinion around nuclear energy affects local politics, and in the EU these feelings vary from country to country. When the European Commission suggested in February that nuclear and coal could play a role in the transition to clean energy, it drew the ire of many European leaders.

“Adding nuclear capabilities is clearly part of the measures to be taken, but nuclear has always been a difficult subject for the EU because some countries, like France and Finland, are pro-nuclear and others, like the “Germany and Sweden are against nuclear,” explained Kim Talus, professor of energy law at Tulane University.

Regardless of public opinion, the ramp-up of nuclear power takes time, which Europe does not have in its plan to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

“Nuclear power plants should already be operating at full capacity, but that’s usually not the case,” said Jonathan Stern, a senior researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “Additional capacity takes years before it can be brought into service. New nuclear plants under construction could be available in the next few years but are notoriously behind schedule.”

Some nuclear power plants, notably in France and Germany, are not operating at full capacity because they have been programmed to operate in what is called “load-following mode”, adjusting to demand and balancing the intermittency of renewable energy sources – for example, operating at higher efficiency when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing, or when there are particular peaks in demand that renewables cannot to manage.

The World Nuclear Association, a nuclear industry group, acknowledges the uneven attention given to nuclear power in the IEA and EU plans.

“It is true that the focus in the document is on securing gas supplies and developing renewable energy,” said WNA spokesman Jonathan Cobb. The IEA’s plan “should be considered,” Cobb told CNBC.

But it is also important to look at the situation country by country, the WNA said. In Belgium, previous plans to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants are being reconsidered by government officials. And in Germany, where national leaders continue to disavow nuclear power, the minister-president of the Bavarian region has called for extending the life of nuclear power plants there, according to Cobb.

“The reasons given for rejecting extended reactor operation in Germany are not insurmountable and should not be a reason to rule out this option,” Cobb told CNBC.

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