PARIS – On the windswept coast of Flamanville, an industrial city in northwestern France facing the turbulent waters of the English Channel, a soaring concrete dome houses one of the world’s most powerful nuclear reactors.
But when this gigantic giant will start supplying power to France’s electricity grid is anyone’s guess.
Construction is a full decade late 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 to be completed in 2009.
As President Vladimir V. Putin’s war in Ukraine pressures Europe to end its dependence on Russian natural gas and oil, the profile of nuclear power rises, promising both homemade energy and reliable electricity.
Nuclear energy can help solve Europe’s looming power crisis, say proponents, who complement an important pivot that was already underway before the war to introduce solar, wind power and other renewable technologies to meet ambitious climate change.
“Putin’s invasion redefined our energy security considerations in Europe,” said Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency. He added: “I expect that nuclear power may well take a step back in Europe and elsewhere as a result of energy security.”
But making a nuclear resuscitation a reality is fraught with problems.
The struggle to find clear alternatives to Russian fuel has widened a political divide in Europe over nuclear power as a bloc of pro-nuclear countries led by France, Europe’s largest nuclear producer, pushes for reconstruction, while Germany and other like-minded countries oppose it. with reference to the dangers of radioactive waste. A recent plan by the European Commission to reduce dependence on Russia left out nuclear power on a list of energy sources to consider.
The long delays and cost overruns that have haunted the massive Flamanville-3 project, a state-of-the-art pressurized water reactor designed to produce 1,600 gigawatts of energy, are emblematic of the broader technical, logistical, and cost challenges that expansion faces.
A quarter of all electricity in the EU comes from nuclear power produced in a dozen countries from an aging fleet that was mostly built in the 1980s. France, with 56 reactors, produces more than half of the total.
A fleet of up to 13 new generations of nuclear reactors planned in France, with a different design than the one in Flamanville, would not be ready until at least 2035 – too late to make a difference in the current energy crunch.
Across the Channel, Britain recently announced ambitions for as many as eight new nuclear power plants, but the reality is more sober. Five of the six existing British reactors are expected to retire within a decade due to age, while only one new nuclear power station, a long-delayed, French-led giant costing £ 20 billion at Hinkley Point in the south-west of England, is under construction . Its first installment is expected to go online in 2026.
Others being considered in Eastern Europe are not expected to go online until 2030.
“Nuclear is going to take so long” because the projects require at least 10 years for completion, said Jonathan Stern, a senior researcher at the independent Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
“The big problem is getting rid of Russian gas, and that problem is now – not in a decade where we may have built another generation of nuclear reactors,” he added.
Proponents say nuclear power could be a solution if the political will is there.
The Belgian government, in agreement with the country’s Green Party, reversed a decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2025 and extended the life of two reactors for another decade as Russia intensified its attack on Ukraine last month. The energy will help Belgium avoid being dependent on Russian gas, as it builds renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and solar fields, to meet European climate goals by 2035.
“The invasion of Ukraine was a life-changer,” 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 is more dependent on Russian gas and coal than any other European country, it seems that the idea of using nuclear power to bridge an energy crisis is not going anywhere.
Germany plans to close its last three nuclear power plants by the end of the year, the final chapter of a program approved by lawmakers to phase out the country’s fleet of 17 reactors following the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
Two of Germany’s largest energy companies said they were open to postponing the closure to help ease the nation’s dependence on Russia. But the Green Party, part of Berlin’s governing coalition, ruled out continuing to run them – let alone reopening three nuclear power plants that closed in December.
“We decided for reasons that I think are very good and right that we will phase them out,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told parliament this month, adding that the idea of delaying Germany’s exit from nuclear power was “not a good plan. “
Even in countries that see nuclear power as a valuable opportunity, there are a host of obstacles in the way. “It’s not going to 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 renaissance in France envisage a wave of large and small new generation nuclear reactors at an estimated starting price of € 50 billion ($ 57 billion) – a staggering cost that other European countries cannot or will not bear. Construction will not be fast, he acknowledged, in part because the industry must also 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 evolving fast and they are all getting cheaper, while nuclear power is not evolving and it is getting more expensive.”
Meanwhile, many of France’s aging reactors, built to create energy independence after the oil crisis of the 1970s, have been put on pause for safety inspections, making it difficult for French nuclear power to help bridge a Russian energy crisis, said Anne-Sophie Corbeau of the French Government. Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
“Nuclear production will fall in France this year unless you find a magic solution, but there is no magic solution,” she said.
Still, Moscow’s aggression may help reverse what had been a bow of the industry’s gradual decline.
Recently, there have been a number of positive statements. In addition to the UK’s announcement this month to expand its nuclear capacity, the Netherlands is planning to build two more with a reactor to supplement solar, wind and geothermal energy.
And in Eastern Europe, a number of countries in Russia’s shadow had made plans to build fleets of nuclear reactors – a move that proponents say is foresighted in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
NuScale Power, an Oregon company selling a new reactor design that it claims will be cheaper and faster to build because key components will be assembled at factories, has signed preliminary agreements in Romania and Poland.
Russia’s invasion has reinforced customers’ “desire to consider nuclear being part of the overall energy mix for their portfolios,” said Tom Mundy, the company’s commercial director.
Nuclearelectrica, the Romanian power company, is pushing ahead with both a NuScale plant and two Canadian reactors to accompany a pair of nuclear plants that generate about 20 percent of the country’s electricity, said Cosmin Ghita, the CEO.
“The crisis in Ukraine has certainly shown us the need to strengthen energy security,” Mr Ghita said. “We get more insight into our projects.”
Meike Becker, a supply analyst at Bernstein, an analytics firm, said Russia’s long-term war would likely “help the European idea” of being more energy-dependent.
“It’s something that nuclear power can deliver,” she added.
Liz Alderman reported from Paris, and Stanley Reed from London.