01/11/2022

Research

The Fall and Rise of European Nuclear Energy

Despite being among the most effective energy sources, the share and production of nuclear power have been in decline across the European Union, primarily due to safety and environmental concerns. However, as the need for nuclear energy significantly increased for various reasons over the last decade, a landmark study – which testified to its safety, efficacy and cleanliness – made it possible for the EU to classify nuclear power as a ‘green’ and sustainable source of energy, and therefore eligible for investment funds. This, in turn, prompted new investments across the bloc with two primary aims: complementing renewables in order to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and help diversify the energy mix of Europe in order to reduce dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. Yet, because of the large number of nuclear power plants already decommissioned in Europe in the past, the current rate of investment in nuclear energy may not be enough to reach the desired goals and results.

The European energy markets have plunged into chaos since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the EU member states now look for alternatives to replace the strategically disadvantageous Russian energy sources. Restructuring the EU’s energy mix has long been considered across the continent even before the war in Ukraine, since the bloc aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Nuclear energy is seen as both the ultimate answer as well as the ultimate taboo in relation to these problems, and the debate around it might have cost us valuable time from embarking on the path of green transformation. Because, quite simply, Europe will have no option but to invest in nuclear power if it hopes to achieve its goals.

The current state of European nuclear energy
Before moving on to the future of the European Union’s nuclear power in terms of the possibilities presented in regard to energy diversification and as an alternative to Russian hydrocarbons, we need to see first the current share of nuclear energy within the European consumer market, as well as the number, capacity and distribution of the operational reactors. Then, we are ought to look at the political and social atmosphere surrounding the issue of nuclear energy at the moment, which will – undoubtedly – contribute to the extent of how effectively Europe will be able to use nuclear as a means to fill the gap that fossil fuels will inevitably leave behind.

Reactors, capacities and importance of nuclear energy across
the EU
As of August 2022, there is a total of 171 operational nuclear power plant units (nuclear reactors) in Europe, with a net electric capacity of 145.1
thousand MWe*. If we take away the non-EU countries within this tally (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Switzerland and the UK), we then get 106 working reactors and a capacity of 115.6 thousand MWe across thirteen countries (see the chart).
In 2021, these reactors' combined gross energy production amounted to 697.4 TWh, or 26.8% of the EU’s total energy output. This makes nuclear energy the largest individual component of the EU’s total energy production, followed by gas (17.9%) and onshore wind turbines
(12.4%).2
By far, the biggest producer of nuclear energy is France (with its 56 working reactors), generating 51.8% of all the EU’s nuclear energy production in 2020 (based on the latest available Eurostat database), followed by Germany (9.4%), Spain (8.5%) and Sweden (7.2%) and nine other member states (23.1%).
However, because the more developed a country, the bigger its energy consumption is, the most relevant data is the EU members’ share of nuclear energy production relative to their total energy output. In this regard, France is still at the top (67%), but is followed by Slovakia (54%), Hungary (46%) and Bulgaria (41%) with similarly high numbers.6

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The Fall and Rise of European Nuclear Energy

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