CONFERENCE CALL: The only way is nukes

CONFERENCE CALL: The only way is nukes
The last new nuclear unit put into operation in Europe was in 2002.
By Tim Gosling in Prague May 24, 2017

Building additional nuclear capacity is the only route to decarbonise Central Europe’s power sector, panelists at the New Nuclear Watch Europe (NNWE) meeting held in Prague on May 22 insisted.

The lobby group for the nuclear industry gathered government and EU officials to impress on the audience that Central Europe does not have the natural resources to fully switch to renewables. Meanwhile, gas presents environmental and geo-political risks, they added confidently.

However, despite worries expressed early in proceedings that they may be “preaching to the converted”, the discussion was anything but one sided. The panel was a little flustered as a bevvy of NGO representatives challenged their claims when the floor was opened to questions.

Even those delegates that announced themselves pro-nuclear stuck the boot in. One Slovene interlocutor pointed out that the last new nuclear unit put into operation in Europe was in 2002. “If you say nuclear is needed,” he barked to the panel, “do something about it!”

The second unit at the Temelin nuclear plant in the Czech Republic was that last addition to the European nuclear fleet. Lobbying to kickstart the construction of the first of four new units under the country’s long-term energy strategy is bubbling away. However, with the costs of nuclear new build having expanded hugely in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, neither the Czech government nor state-controlled utility CEZ wants to stump up the CZK300bn (€11bn) or so that the programme will cost.

Tim Yeo, the former UK MP and chairman of NNWE – which advocates nuclear as the clean technology of the future – clearly feels this safety bug has gone too far. Nuclear can compete economically if costs are cut, he announced at the outset. “Permitting and location costs must be brought down,” he said.

At the same time, referring to Hungary’s controversial Paks 2 project, he asserted that deals from the east are key. “At the levels offered by Russia, South Korea and China, construction and financing costs make nuclear power production very competitive,” he added.

Critics point out that Hungary already relies on Russia for 60% of its energy, and claim the deal will only hand Moscow more leverage over the Nato country. The financial risks of the €12.5bn project are also huge, given the weakness of power markets and EU stipulations that Paks 2 production must be sold on the open market.

Russia and China both clearly hope the Czech Republic will follow the Hungarian model to hand out contracts without a tender. The fiscal and geopolitical risks don’t appear to worry Czech Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Lenka Kovacovska, however. A way must be found to build new nuclear if Central Europe is to meet decarbonisation goals, she stated bluntly.

Sea and sun

“The Czech Republic has no coast for offshore wind, not enough sun for solar. Energy efficiency will help us but not save us regarding decarbonisation,” she said. “We have absolutely no other option but to add new nuclear capacity to the use of renewables.”

Dr Stephen Lechner, head of EU nuclear agency Euratom, suggested Kovacovska and her peers need to do more to promote nuclear as an environmental saviour. “The European Commission feels member states have an issue with communicating with the public on nuclear,” he claimed.

That’s a strange point in Central Europe, where public support for nuclear is strong. Activists complain that nuclear is a “religion”, a situation they suggest is a hangover from communism. Government and big business maintain their grip on sectors like energy, so the theory goes, and push the nuclear agenda hard as they enjoy large and complex projects that send cash washing through the system.

Indeed, if the nuclear lobby is to be believed, even the environment would likely vote for more nuclear if it go the chance. The panel’s eyes lit up when one member of the audience offered them a tasty soundbite: “The climate doesn’t care how power is produced, but how much CO2 is emitted.” 

Political leaders in the region are certainly convinced. On top of the Czech and Hungarian efforts, Poland is seeking a route to finally get a project to build its first nuclear plant up and running. Slovakia is the only member of Visegrad currently building, with two new units at the Mochovce plant due to launch operations by the end of the decade.

Despite long delays and a budget that has more than doubled to €5.4bn, Bratislava remains committed to nuclear power, Prime Minister Robert Fico said at the European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF) the same day. “We would hardly be able to achieve any ambitious goals if we produced electricity only by combusting gas and brown coal,” he said, according to TASR.

In fact, Slovak Economy Minister Peter Ziga noted that a project to build another new block at the Jaslovske Bohunice plant – CEZ is a partner in the plan after failing to sell its share to Russia’s Rosatom – is already prepared in principle. However, the weak power markets remain an issue. “We’re waiting for better times when the prices on the power energy market are a bit higher,” the minister admitted.

While there is no little debate over the exact figure, new nuclear projects currently need to sell output at a level of at least €70 per MWh or so to make financial sense. Prices have sat closer to €30 in recent years.

Kovacovska identified another issue, likely with CEZ minority shareholders in mind, as they have expressed strong opposition to government pressure for the company to build new units without any state support schemes. “There’s no trust in the market,” she asserted. “That’s due to state interventions and a lack of belief in political commitment to decarbonsiation.”

National security

For Petr Zavodsky, director of CEZ's nuclear power plant development unit, the picture is clear: renewables need backup, and there’s only one realistic choice.

The Czech Republic will close 3,000MW of generation capacity over the next decade due to environmental and mining limits, he stated. That leaves the country needing to develop as much as 5,000MW in new capacity. “Industry 4.0 is coming, and will likely boost demand for electricity,” he suggested. “Or should we simply close down our industry?”

Nuclear will need to be around for at least the next 35 years or longer, Lechner agreed, noting that “you never know what is going to happen”.

The panel persistently made the point that the difficulties of predicting the future are a driving point for sticking with nuclear. Critics, on the other hand, make the same argument against such mega-projects. Quite where renewables technology will head in the 70 years or so project life of new nuclear is impossible to say. Progress will be quicker with funding put into renewables, rather than diverted to the older nuclear technology, they claim.

Nuclear – which currently produces 50% of clean power in the EU – clearly trumps gas as a backup, Zavodsky insisted. “Gas produces higher emissions than nuclear, and must be imported,” he pointed out. “That makes it a threat to the Czech budget and national security.”

The CEZ man was quoted last year as suggesting that it would make his company’s life easier if Prague sealed an inter-governmental agreement with Moscow or Beijing to build the new nuclear units. It is not clear to many why Russian gas presents more of a security threat than Russian nuclear technology.

A delegate from the Austrian environment ministry – a staunch opponent of nuclear projects in the EU – noted that the fuel for nuclear power plants is also imported. “Maybe we could build a new lignite plant that would produce power as a 100% Czech-made product,” Zavodsky retorted, without referring to gas again. “But that’s it – everything else requires external dependency.”