The EU and the climate need nuclear power

Half of Europe’s CO2-free electricity currently comes from nuclear power. It will be needed to reduce climate emissions also in the future.

The EU is targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. This requires a significant increase in the use of renewable energy, which, on its own, isn’t enough to meet the energy demand.

“If we intend to stick to the climate target, we will also need CO2-free nuclear power in the future,” notes Esa Hyvärinen, Head of CEO Office at Fortum.

There are currently 126 nuclear power reactors operating in 14 countries in the EU area. And four new plants are under construction.

“26 per cent of the electricity generated in the EU comes from nuclear power plants. Nuclear power accounts for about half of the CO2-free electricity production,” says Peter Tuominen, Vice President, Nuclear Safety Assurance, Fortum.

One of the advantages of nuclear power plants is that they can produce a lot of electricity and steadily around the clock. The production volumes of wind and solar power plants vary depending on the weather.

“In the public discourse, nuclear power and renewable energy forms are often seen as alternatives to each other. However, this kind of rivalry is gratuitous because both are needed to achieve the emissions targets,” Tuominen notes.

He points out that nuclear power is also an economically competitive form of energy production.

“However, this requires a constant effort to develop standardised equipment and licensing processes in collaboration with the industry, authorities and governments.”

The majority of Europe’s nuclear power plants have been around for more than 30 years. The operating lifetime of many plants must be extended during the upcoming decade.

“A key sector challenge is how to keep the plants operating cost efficiently and reliably while improving safety and extending their useful lifetime,” Hyvärinen says.

Building a new nuclear power plant is a long and expensive project. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), extending the operating lifetime of nuclear power plants is the most cost-effective way to produce emissions-free electricity in the years to come.

Fortum is currently reviewing the future of two nuclear reactors commissioned in Loviisa in 1977 and 1980. Their operating licenses will expire in 2027 and 2030, respectively.

“We have initiated the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure to review the environmental impacts related to extending the operation, or, alternatively, the decommissioning of the power plant,” Hyvärinen says.

Fortum has invested nearly 500 million euros in the Loviisa power plant during the past five years.

“The technology is continuously modernised, which further improves the safety and availability,” Tuominen says.

The processing of spent fuel is an integral part of long-term responsible operations. The construction of a final repository for this is being completed deep in the bedrock in Olkiluoto, Eurajoki.

Attitudes towards nuclear power are partially inconsistent in the EU. In the European Commission’s sustainable finance package, nuclear power is not defined as an environmentally sustainable investment target.

“The policy not only impacts the construction of new nuclear plants, but also existing ones. Today’s plants seek financing from the markets to refinance maturing loans or to invest in safety and availability. And extending the operating lifetime also requires investments,” Hyvärinen says.

The Commission’s criteria steer the decisions of private investors. They also impact the use of public funds, and, among others, the EU’s big stimulus package to finance sustainability projects to recover from the coronavirus crisis.

Small modular reactors are coming

The possibility to build small modular reactors (SMRs) to produce CO2-free electricity and heat is currently being studied around the world. In Finland, the VTT Technical Research Centre and LUT University in Lappeenranta are developing an SMR that could meet the district heating needs of an entire city.

“Small modular reactors are especially well suited for district heat production in Finland because it is more difficult to find CO2-free forms of production for heating. SMRs would also make it possible to produce emissions-free hydrogen for industrial processes, which is otherwise difficult to make emissions-free,” says Fortum’s Esa Hyvärinen.

In terms of technology and legislation, Fortum estimates that production use of the first SMRs in Finland would be possible in about 10-15 years.

“To be competitive, the plants must be highly standardised and serially produced.”