Nuclear Politics

Nuclear Energy Summit 2024 / Von Der Leyen Backs Nuclear, But Warns Future Of Industry Is ‘Hardly Guaranteed’

By Rumyana Vakarelska
22 March 2024

European Commission president calls for discipline from sector and outlines key tasks ahead

Von Der Leyen Backs Nuclear, But Warns Future Of Industry Is ‘Hardly Guaranteed’
Ursula von der Leyen said key tasks lie ahead if nuclear is to make a substantial contribution to climate neutrality objectives.

The future of the nuclear power industry is “hardly assured” and key tasks lie ahead if the sector is to make a substantial contribution to climate neutrality objectives, including the main one of securing new investments, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said.

In a speech to the inaugural Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels in which she backed nuclear and outlined the role in can play in the energy transition, Von der Leyen said the reality today in most markets is “a slow but steady decline in nuclear’s market share”.

She said nuclear accounts for 9% of the world’s electricity mix, down from 18% in 1988.

In the EU, nuclear power is still the largest single source of electricity generation with a 22% share, she said, but that share is substantially below the levels reached in the 1990s, when nuclear power generated one-third of Europe's electricity.

“Key tasks lie ahead if nuclear is to make a substantial contribution to climate neutrality objectives,” Von der Leyen told the summit, co-hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo,.

“The main one is to secure new investments. Support is needed from governments to ensure that financing is available and that nuclear’s contribution to electricity security is properly valued and remunerated.”

Her comments came as world leaders at the summit adopted a declaration that promised efforts to unlock the full potential of nuclear energy including access to competitive financing for lifetime extensions, new nuclear plants and the early deployment of advanced reactors, including small modular reactors (SMRs) worldwide.

‘A Lot Of Work To Do’ On Financing

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi told NucNet at the 21 March summit that there is “a lot of work to do” with markets on financing.

“We need to facilitate access to nuclear energy for those lagging behind, we have a lot of work to do on financing internationally and nationally,” he said.

The IAEA has said that although they have relatively low and stable operating costs, nuclear power plant projects can be a challenge, considering that capital costs are high and usually combined with very large project sizes. This means that the scale of financing required for even a single project is substantial.

The IAEA said the financing of nuclear power projects has become more challenging in the last three decades with nuclear operators exposed to price and demand risk, which increases the overall risk of new projects and the difficulty of obtaining financing.

“To encourage nuclear development despite these difficulties, innovative approaches to financing and support policies are being pursued, including partial investment or loan guarantees from the government,” the IAEA said.

Von der Leyen called for discipline from the nuclear power industry, saying the future of nuclear depends on its ability to deliver on time and on budget.

“Far too often, the realisation of nuclear power plants has resulted in significant additional costs and overruns,” she said.

Another task is to look at new opportunities for nuclear such as providing decarbonised heat or clean hydrogen. These can help cut emissions from industry, which will be critical to reaching climate goals.

Von der Leyen backed life extensions for existing nuclear plants. She said countries need to consider their options carefully before they forego a readily available source of low emission electricity.

“The final task is to innovate,” Von der Leyen said. “Innovation in nuclear technologies is a very dynamic space, particularly for nuclear power technologies such as small modular reactors.”

She said: “Small modular reactors are a promising technology and there is a race underway. The race is among leading countries and companies to prove this technology and bring it to the market.”

‘Let’s Go For It’ On Small Modular Reactors

According to Von der Leyen, more than 80 SMR projects around the world are moving forward and several EU member states have expressed a strong interest in SMRs. “So, let's go for it,” she said.

Voon der Leyen told the summit “I am here because I believe that in countries that are open to the technology, nuclear technology can play an important role in the clean energy transition”.

She said that after the global energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries are looking again at the potential role that nuclear might play.

This is because nuclear power worldwide is the second largest source of low-emission electricity after hydropower and to safeguard energy security, countries are looking to reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Nuclear also helps ensure competitiveness, Von der Leyen said. “Nuclear power can provide a reliable anchor for electricity prices.”

This renewed interest comes at a pivotal moment. “Most pathways to net zero keep a place open for nuclear power,” she said. “And if I look at the International Energy Agency’s 2050 scenario, for example, nuclear power, nuclear capacity has more than to double till 2050, while renewables, of course, take the most of the work of decarbonising global electricity supply.”

She said European Commission projections show that renewable energy sources complemented by nuclear energy will be the backbone of the EU power production by 2050.

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi said at the summit there is ‘a lot of work to do’ on financing. Courtesy IAEA.

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