PARIS — On the windswept coast of Flamanville, an industrial town in northwestern France facing the choppy waters of the English Channel, a soaring concrete dome houses one of the world’s most powerful nuclear reactors.
But when this behemoth giant will start supplying electricity to the French power grid, no one knows.
Construction is a decade behind schedule and 12 billion euros, or $13 billion, over budget. Plans to start operations this year have been pushed back again, to 2024. And the problems in Flamanville are not unique. Finland’s newest nuclear power plant, which started operating last month, was due to be completed in 2009.
As President Vladimir V. Putin’s war in Ukraine pushes Europe to break its dependence on Russian natural gas and oil, the profile of nuclear power rises, promising local energy as well as a reliable electricity.
Nuclear power could help solve Europe’s looming power shortage, proponents say, completing a major pivot that was already underway before the war to embrace solar, wind and other renewable technologies in order to achieve ambitious climate change goals.
“Putin’s invasion redefined our energy security considerations in Europe,” said Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency. He added: “I expect nuclear to take a step back in Europe and elsewhere due to energy insecurity.”
But making a nuclear revival a reality is fraught with pitfalls.
The race to find ready alternatives to Russian fuel has amplified a political divide in Europe over nuclear power, as a bloc of pro-nuclear nations led by France, Europe’s biggest atomic producer, pushes for a buildup while that Germany and other like-minded countries oppose it, citing the dangers of radioactive waste. A recent European Commission plan to reduce dependence on Russia clearly excluded nuclear energy from the list of energy sources to consider.
The long delays and cost overruns that have plagued the massive Flamanville-3 project, a state-of-the-art pressurized water reactor designed to produce 1,600 megawatts of power, are emblematic of the wider technical, logistical and financial challenges facing an expansion is faced.
A quarter of all the electricity in the European Union comes from nuclear energy produced in a dozen countries from an aging fleet built for the most part in the 1980s. France, with 56 reactors, produces more than half of the total.
A planned fleet of up to 13 next-generation nuclear reactors in France, using a different design from Flamanville, would not be ready until at least 2035 – too late to make a difference in the current energy crisis.
Across the Channel, Britain recently announced ambitions for up to eight new nuclear power stations, but the reality is sobering. Five of Britain’s six existing reactors are set to be retired within a decade due to their age, while a single new nuclear power station, a long-delayed £20billion French giant at Hinkley Point in south-west England, is under construction. Its first part should be online in 2026.
Others planned for Eastern Europe are not expected to come online until 2030.
“Nuclear is going to take so long” because projects take at least 10 years to complete, said Jonathan Stern, senior researcher at the Independent Institute for Energy Studies in Oxford.
“The big problem is getting rid of Russian gas, and that problem is now – not in a decade, when we may have built another generation of nuclear reactors,” he added.
Proponents say nuclear power can be a solution if the political will is there.
Belgium’s government, in agreement with the country’s Green Party, reversed its decision to phase out nuclear power by 2025 and extended the life of two reactors for another decade as Russia stepped up its assault against Ukraine last month. The energy will help Belgium avoid dependence on Russian gas as it builds renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and solar fields, to meet European climate targets by 2035.
“The invasion of Ukraine was life-changing,” Belgian Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten said last week, explaining the government’s reversal. “We wanted to reduce our imports from Russia.”
But in Germany, which depends more than any other European country on Russian gas and coal, the idea of using nuclear power to fill an energy crisis seems to be going nowhere.
Germany is set to shut down its last three nuclear power plants by the end of the year, the latest chapter in a program lawmakers approved to phase out the country’s 17-unit fleet after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Japan, in 2011.
Two of Germany’s biggest energy companies have said they are willing to postpone the shutdown to help reduce the country’s dependence on Russia. But the Green Party, which is part of Berlin’s ruling coalition, has ruled out continuing to operate them – let alone reopening three nuclear power plants that shut down in December.
“We have decided for what I think are very good and just reasons that we want to phase them out,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told parliament this month, adding that the idea of delaying Germany’s nuclear exit was “not a good plan”.
Even in countries that see nuclear power as a viable option, a host of obstacles stand in the way. “It won’t happen overnight,” said Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research organization.
President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for a nuclear power renaissance in France envision a wave of large and small next-generation atomic reactors at an estimated starting price of 50 billion euros ($57 billion) – a staggering cost that other European countries cannot or won’t take. The buildup will not be quick, he acknowledged, in part because the industry also needs to train a new generation of nuclear power engineers.
“Most governments push and push, and even if they start building, it takes a long time,” said Mr Stern of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “All these other technologies are advancing rapidly and they’re all getting cheaper, while nuclear isn’t advancing and getting more expensive.”
Meanwhile, many aging French reactors, built to forge energy independence after the oil crisis of the 1970s, have been suspended for safety inspections, making it difficult for French nuclear power to help fill a Russian energy shortage, said Anne-Sophie Corbeau of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
“Nuclear production will decrease in France this year unless you find a magic solution, but there is no magic solution,” she said.
Yet Moscow’s aggression may help reverse what had been an arc of the industry’s gradual decline.
Recently, there have been a series of optimistic statements. Along with Britain’s announcement this month to expand its nuclear capacity, the Netherlands, with one reactor, plans to build two more to supplement solar, wind and geothermal power.
And in Eastern Europe, a number of countries in Russia’s shadow had planned to build fleets of nuclear reactors – a move that supporters say seems prescient in the wake of the ISIS invasion. Ukraine by Russia.
NuScale Power, an Oregon company selling a new reactor design it says will be cheaper and faster to build because key components will be assembled in factories, has signed preliminary deals in Romania and Poland.
Russia’s invasion has reinforced “customers’ desire to consider nuclear as part of the overall energy mix of their portfolios,” said Tom Mundy, the company’s chief commercial officer.
Nuclearelectrica, Romania’s electricity company, is moving forward with a NuScale plant and two Canadian reactors, to accompany a pair of nuclear facilities that generate about 20% of the country’s electricity, said Cosmin Ghita, the director general.
“The Ukrainian crisis has clearly shown us the need to strengthen energy security,” Mr. Ghita said. “We are gaining strength for our projects.”
Meike Becker, a utilities analyst at Bernstein, a research firm, said in the long term Russia’s war was likely to “reinforce the European idea” of being more energy independent.
“That’s something nuclear can offer,” she added.
Liz Alderman brought back from Paris, and Stanley Roseau from London.
April 26, 2022
An earlier version of this article misrepresented how much energy the Flamanville-3 nuclear plant will produce. It is designed to generate 1,600 megawatts, not 1,600 gigawatts.