|Prospects for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century|
|Pedro Miguel Santos de Sampaio Nunes|
This is a vast subject. Within the European Union, the contribution of nuclear energy has been fully recognised: it provides 35% of our electricity. However, its future role often gives rise to passionate debate. Indeed, it can be said that the subject has been taboo for a long time within the European Commission. And so I am pleased to be here to highlight the new context which we, at the European Commission, see emerging from our recent works in this domain.
The Euratom Treaty creates an obligation for the Commission to promote the conditions to allow the rapid growth of nuclear energy. The original Treaty has achieved quite remarkable success: research, safeguards, and the Euratom Supply Agency. In parallel, industry invested to achieve the present level of contribution of nuclear energy to our energy balance. However, the accident at Three-Miles Island in 1979 followed in 1986 by the Chernobyl accident, against the background of a strong political campaign against nuclear weapons during the Cold War, brought about important changes in attitude. The reduction of energy prices, the availability of natural gas as an alternative source of fuel and the feeling that security of supply constraints were relaxing all led energy policy makers to promote other energy vectors. At the same time, and because of these developments, we witnessed the emergence of a strong opposition to nuclear energy in some Member States.
The approach of the European Commission has also been influenced by this situation. This culminated in a policy which recognised the full application of the subsidiarity principle: Member States develop their own specific policies on the types of fuel for electricity production. Also, at a Community level, reform of the energy markets and the development of environmental protection policy became major lines of policy.
However, the Vice President of the Commission, Mme Loyola de Palacio, as soon as she took over the energy and transport portfolio, pointed out forcibly that the underlying conditions were changing in terms of market structure, the geopolitical situation and environmental challenges. Therefore, she argued, the policy at EU level should take these new conditions into consideration.
As recent studies – for example, in Belgium and France – have shown, nuclear plays a strong role in security of supply. It is true that under the current scenario, nuclear energy would decrease its share in supply by 2020 due to the closure programmes in Germany and other countries. Nevertheless, Finland has recently embarked on the process which could lead to building its fifth nuclear unit.
It is clear that it would be unwise to neglect nuclear’s potential to create the conditions for the European Union to fulfil its obligations both in terms of security of supply and sustainable development.
Is the future for nuclear bright?
If nuclear has the potential to contribute to the EU energy balance, one must also take into consideration the new environment in which it will have to operate.
I am convinced that the nuclear industry has the capability to resolve these issues. But the first step is to persevere in adopting a culture of openness, showing the general public that there is nothing to hide. In particular, I think that the nuclear industry now has an opportunity to open a dialogue with all its stakeholders to determine the conditions of its operation as well as to make clear its contribution to a cleaner environment and a more competitive economy.
Major issues for the future
The Commission has referred in its Green Paper to other issues, which have a direct impact on the individual citizen’s perception of the potential of nuclear energy potential to cover our future needs.
There is a very broad consensus on the concept of geological disposal for such wastes. The necessary technologies have all been tried and tested. Research and development will continue to refine data, models, and concepts related to the long-term safety of disposal. The experts have no doubt that we could dispose safely of wastes today, and that there are now no technical reasons to delay decisions on disposal. Radioactive waste exists. We generated it. We must manage it. If we are not to pass our waste on to future generations, we should also dispose of it.
But there continues to be opposition from large sectors of the public to most proposals concerning the siting of repositories. Given this, it is increasingly difficult to get political support for– or even political decisions on – such sites. This failure to advance to the next stage in the waste management process reinforces the public’s initial suspicions and resistance. In turn, this makes political decisions even harder. The spiral continues. Major efforts will be required to change its course. The Commission has urged Member States to work closely together and to make progress towards siting, construction and operation of repositories. In this context, we warmly welcome the decision of the Finnish Parliament in May this year.
Nuclear’s future role
To contribute to a global reflection about nuclear power in the 21st century we have, I think, to admit that, at first glance, significant investment in new nuclear power plants within the EU is unlikely in the near future. In many parts of the EU, the electricity market has an overcapacity, and extending the lifetime of existing nuclear plants will in any case limit the need to build new ones. This is not the situation everywhere, and new nuclear capacity might be looked for soon in Finland and perhaps also in some candidate countries.
In the medium term – from the beginning of the next decade - if the policy to fight CO2 emissions is enforced, the environmental and economic advantages of nuclear power for base load electricity production should give it a chance to maintain its contribution and to reverse the trend towards closure. Industry might have to look to less capital-intensive technology. The European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR) and other designs are available, and some of these have already been licensed. Such developments will also be influenced by price increases for competing natural gas. In that time horizon it will become clear if climate change is confirmed as a real and serious threat. If that is the case, the prospects for nuclear will improve significantly because the reduction of CO2 needed will be of the order of 60 to 70% of present levels and not just 8%.
Nuclear energy has strong advantages which should permit this energy to contribute significantly to our energy needs. It is essential to the European Union that European industry is in position to compete both within the EUand in external markets.
In my view, given nuclear’s long lead times, I would suggest that, beyond 2020, new fission technologies now being developed will have to be deployed. Their ultimate acceptance will depend on their cost effectiveness and their ability to produce less waste while maintaining a high level of nuclear safety and proliferation resistance. Fusion continues to be a prospect for the future, but here progress is dependent on political will and long-term financing. Indeed, the European Commission still believes in this technology, although intensified international co-operation is needed due to the magnitude of the efforts required.
Finally, as a conclusion, I would like to point out that whatever our thoughts may be about the future of nuclear energy, we cannot exclude the possibility that technological progress in other sectors could significantly impact on the nuclear sector. What might be the consequences of an overall conversion of the transport sector to cars powered by fuel cells? In that case which technologies will generate the massive demand for hydrogen? The answers to these and other questions are not easy. Depending on your views about the forces which create changes in our society, answers might be different. But, in any case, nuclear energy will almost certainly be a part of the equation and in the European Commission’s view, it is not an option that mankind can afford to put aside.
© copyright The World Nuclear Association 2001