Europe's Strategic Vision

Ute Blohm-Hieber

In the quest to reduce CO2 emissions, improve efficiency and achieve energy independence, European institutions give the green light to nuclear power.

At the heart of the European energy policy approved by the Spring Summit of the European Council, lie three criteria: competitiveness, security of supply and sustainability.

This 'magic triangle' offers for the first time a new standard against which all potential energy sources are measured making it possible to evaluate what contribution they can make in the transition to a low-carbon economy, i.e., one that guarantees economic growth while at the same time ensuring high energy efficiency and low CO2 emissions.

Nuclear Energy in the New European Energy Policy

It is a fact that nuclear energy is already making a substantial contribution to an energy policy that is low-carbon, cost-effective and that provides assured supply. At present, nuclear supplies 30% of Europe's electricity, produces very low CO2 emissions calculated over the entire fuel cycle (comparable to wind energy), and has a quasi 'indigenous' character, i.e., it can rely on a complete European nuclear fuel cycle. In addition, it contributes to the stabilization of electricity prices, owing to the favourable ratio of primary investment costs to fuel costs.

The Achilles' heel of nuclear power, however, continues to be waste disposal, particularly the disposal of high‑level and long-lived radioactive waste. While there are technical solutions for final disposal (various Member States have proven it conclusively using underground laboratories in different host rocks), in most European States no political decision has been taken yet to implement these concepts. Unfortunately, this gives the false impression that there is no safe solution to the waste problem, which in turn reduces public acceptance of nuclear energy.

Acceptance plays a significant role in the European Commission's (EC) proposal for a new European energy policy. The choice whether to use nuclear power plants for electricity generation is left to each individual Member State. However, in its energy strategy paper the EC demands that any reduction in the nuclear energy share must be offset through the use of other low-carbon energy sources, so that the goal of a low-carbon energy future can be met.

Repeated Eurobarometer surveys show that when a Member State makes the effort to implement a waste concept, nuclear energy is met with higher public acceptance. Evidence shows that dialogue and the provision of information on the advantages of nuclear energy and on ways to minimize risk also contribute to public willingness to accept this energy form.

As a result, in its action plan the European Union (EU) has addressed both the waste issue and the need to make the nuclear energy debate more objective. Key elements of this strategy are:

  • Support for research and development under the Seventh Research Framework Programme, including waste management; and

  • Setting up of a nuclear energy forum that brings together high-ranking representatives of all the relevant social interest groups for dialogue on nuclear energy opportunities and risks.

Furthermore, the EU is of the opinion that a suitable modern European legal framework for the use of nuclear energy should be created to guarantee a high level of safety, as well as ensure the disposal of radioactive waste and the safe decommissioning of nuclear energy facilities at the end of their service lifetime. Such a legal framework would contribute directly to the safety needs of European citizens, as shown in Eurobarometer surveys.

To make this idea a reality, the EC action plan provides for a high-ranking group of nuclear safety experts answering these questions.

The high importance that the EC attaches to nuclear safety was reflected in the negotiations for the 2004/2007 round of entries in the EU, for which the early shutdown of first generation Soviet-constructed or Chernobyl-type reactors was made a precondition. This stance does not contradict a European energy policy based on security of supply, sustainability and economic viability, as many in the Member States concerned seemed to think. Rather, it is a requirement so that nuclear energy can continue to play a central role in such an energy policy.

The EU's determination both to give absolute priority to a high level of safety culture in its Member States and to promote the implementation of comparable standards in international bodies should also help to de-emotionalize the debate, which, unfortunately, in some Member States is still more ideological than objective.

The EC welcomes the fact that in 15 of the 27 European Member States electricity can be generated from nuclear energy -- more nuclear power plants are under construction or in final planning stages in Finland, France, Bulgaria and Lithuania. In addition, in its strategy for energy technology it has also consistently included goal-oriented research that looks into fourth generation reactors, which use fewer resources and produce less waste. Further developments in the fields of nuclear fusion are also part of the EU's strategy.

This way, the EU can do more to stay at the forefront of worldwide research, which is where Europe has always been in terms of nuclear energy. In doing so, Europe is also ensuring for itself considerable long-term export and employment opportunities.

The call now is for a two-track approach. In the interest of sustainable, competitive and assured-supply energy, Europe should:

  • Support technically-advanced, low-carbon technologies and consequently maintain the nuclear energy share to at least at current levels until 2020; and

  • Promote the research of low-carbon technologies so as to realize the vision for 2050: a 60-80% in CO2 reduction.

The industry sector also has an important contribution to make. In fact, the EU's approach calls for developments in the field of nuclear energy that would allow to make rapid progress in the development of fourth generation reactors.

If we want to preserve the welfare of European citizens, all energy options which fulfil the criteria of the 20/20/20 energy policy must be taken into consideration. Improving energy efficiency and using low-carbon technologies such as nuclear power and renewables would allow us reach the goals laid out in our energy policy.

Ute Blohm-Hieber is Head of the EC's Nuclear Energy, Waste Management & Transport Unit.