Power plan

Berlin Alarmed at E.U. Nuclear Ideas

Atomkraftwerk Tihange
In the nuclear debate, the E.U. turned up the heat.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    An E.U. strategy paper calling for closer cooperation on nuclear energy research has angered Germany, which is phasing out all its plants by 2022.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • A strategy paper leaked to German media this week contains a pledge to maintain the bloc’s technological leadership in nuclear energy.
    • The proposals run counter to German plans for a complete phaseout of nuclear power by 2022 as part of its strategy to wean Germany off fossil fuels by 2050.
    • One German minister dismissed the paper’s proposals as “crazy and irresponsible.”
  • Audio

    Audio

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To the government, it must have seemed like a bad joke. While utilities like RWE and E.ON are in the midst of an earnings meltdown because the country is phasing out nuclear power by 2022, the European Union is thinking about how to promote the technology.

An E.U. Commission strategy paper leaked to German media including Handelsblatt this week calls on member states to cooperate more closely to develop innovative new nuclear plants and preserve the bloc’s technological leadership in the field.

It said E.U. states should draw on E.U. research funds such as the European Fund for Strategic Investments or the European Structural & Investment Fund.

It’s absurd to think about how to renew subsidies for one of the oldest technologies we use to produce energy in Europe.

The paper triggered outrage in Germany, where nuclear energy has long been decried as too risky and environmentally harmful.

“It’s absurd to think about how to renew subsidies for one of the oldest technologies we use to produce energy in Europe,”said Vice Chancellow Sigmar Gabriel, who is also minister of the economy. He said it would be “the completely wrong path” and that Germany had no role in drafting the paper.

Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks was especially critical, saying: “That’s a crazy and irresponsible idea.”

The E.U. Commission tried to calm the waters, with a spokeswoman saying the paper was a basis for discussion and didn’t reflect the Commission’s point of view. She said it wasn’t the final version of the paper and that it would remain up to each E.U. member whether to continue using nuclear power.

But the Commission believes that the E.U won’t be able to forego nuclear energy in the foreseeable future for a number of reasons: energy consumption is rising and the 28 member states have agreed to lessen their dependence on imports of Russian gas. In addition, the E.U. has committed itself to sharp reductions in CO2 emissions. Unlike coal and gas-fired power stations, nuclear plants emit virtually no CO2.

But the European Commission denied that it wanted to boost the construction of reactors. “The Commission is neutral. The energy mix is entirely up to the member states. This is about coordinating research and development in energy generation and defining priorities for the coming years,” a source said.

The paper, which was obtained by Handelsblatt, also addresses renewable energies and electricity storage. It was merely intended as a basis for discussion for a meeting of experts from governments, research institutions and industry next week, the source said.

The Commission recently published a report on the nuclear sector in the E.U. concluding that utilities will have to invest huge sums in the construction and modernization of new reactors. Around €450 to €500 billion in investment would be needed for that purpose by 2050, the Commission said. In addition to that sum, investment of an estimated €45 billion to €50 billion would be needed to extend the lifetime of existing plants.

Given those challenges, research and innovation will be important, which is why Brussels wants to speed up the development of new technologies such as smaller and more flexible reactors – another goal named in the paper.

“The use of nuclear energy is a reality in the E.U. whether the critics like it or not,” said a source close to Climate and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete. The E.U. therefore had a duty to ensure the greatest possible safety and to help member states lay the foundations for the highest possible standards.

E.U. states that don’t want to use nuclear energy aren’t bound by any declarations of intent to conduct nuclear research, said the Commission.

At present, 131 nuclear power stations are hooked up to the grid in 14 E.U. states. They’re 30 years old on average and supply around a third of the E.U.’s energy needs.

New reactors are either planned or being built in France, Britain, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania and Romania.

The Commission is recommending close cooperation by national regulators on licensing the new plants. Better coordination and common standards could reduce costs and improve safety, the Commission said. “But the E.U. doesn’t fund the production of energy in itself,” it added.

 

Thomas Ludwig is a Brussels correspondent for Handelsblatt. Dana Heide writes about energy policy, SMEs and innovation from Berlin. To contact the authors: ludwig@handelsblatt.com, heide@handelsblatt.com

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