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New Nukes in Europe

Europeans are rethinking the merits of nuclear energy and whether to build new plants, says energy executive Lars Josefsson.

Widespread public concern in Europe over climate change resulting from fossil fuel emissions, and over the increasing uncertainty of energy supplies from places like Russia has a number of European countries taking a second look at nuclear energy. Most notably, Finland has begun construction of Europe’s first new nuclear power plant in over a decade.

Indeed, a number of European countries that had rejected nuclear power are rethinking their strategies. In Germany, which relies heavily on Russian oil and gas, a planned phase-out of the nuclear reactors that supply one-third of the nation’s electricity is becoming increasingly controversial. Meanwhile, in Sweden, a debate is raging over the wisdom of that country’s plans to phase out nuclear power plants, after the costly closure of a second plant last summer. (Compensating the plant’s owners cost Swedish taxpayers over one billion euros.) And nuclear power is officially back on the planning board in the United Kingdom, which had foresworn new nuclear reactors.

Paris-based Technology Review contributing writer Peter Fairley recently discussed the thinking about nuclear power in Europe with Lars Josefsson, CEO of Stockholm-based Vattenfall AB, a leading producer of electricity and operator of nine reactors in Sweden and Germany.

Technology Review: Finland is building a nuclear power plant, and France looks set to follow suit with one of its own. Do you expect other countries in Europe to join the trend?

Lars Josefsson: It’s quite a process to decide to build new nuclear – one that will take several years. But the fact that there is a trend shift in Europe is, to me, obvious. Take Britain. They are moving in that direction very clearly. And I think the replacement market [for aging plants] in Europe will be sizable. And you will see a lot of demand from Asia and probably from the U.S. as well. There is a real risk that the nuclear technology supply industry will become a bottleneck in the near future.

TR: Your firm is based in Sweden, where last November a poll found that 65 percent of those questioned were opposed to the premature closing of the country’s nuclear reactors, which provide 45 percent of their electricity. Why does the Swedish public now want nuclear power to stay?

LJ: For ten years the polls have consistently shown that the Swedish population is pro-nuclear. I think our safety track record is convincing. It is also quite a long time now since the days of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Then you also have the climate-change issue, which has become the most serious environmental concern, as well as the question of energy security. I think all of these areas work together.

TR: Only two of Sweden’s 12 reactors have shut down since the country adopted a nuclear phase-out policy in 1980. And it is clear now that the policy’s 2010 target for completing the phase-out will come and go without further closures. Is the government, in effect, phasing out the phase-out?

LJ: The wording that the government uses is that we will close the other reactors only as we find replacement power. That is guarded wording.

TR: Sweden is cutting greenhouse gas emissions to meet its commitments under the Kyoto protocol. Germany, which has its own nuclear phase-out on the books, is barely holding emissions steady. Could either country continue to control carbon dioxide emissions without nuclear?

LJ: Not in the short term, which is to say the next 10 to 15 years. With its aging power-plant fleet, Germany has an enormous need for new generation capacity in the coming decade, and emissions-free fossil generation [via carbon sequestration] is not yet commercially available.

TR: Would your company, Vattenfall, build new reactors in Germany if their phase-out was scrapped?

LJ: It’s always delicate to be quoted about such a hypothetical situation. But we are a large, professional nuclear operator and we have a great deal of nuclear know-how. If Germany’s policy changes and the public accepts that change, we would consider that when we decide on new investments. Currently, a majority of the German population is still negative towards nuclear power.

TR: Nuclear energy’s critics question whether financial markets will provide the capital for new plants. Has carbon trading changed that equation by forcing fossil-fueled plants to internalize the cost of their greenhouse gas emissions, at more than $30 per ton of carbon released?

LJ: Yes. The business case looks much better than it did five years ago. The rising cost of carbon emissions is a significant component of that case in Europe. The other, of course, is a general increase in the cost of primary energy, whether it’s oil, gas, or coal. Few believe we will see a reverse in either trend.

TR: The European Commission is trying to forge a coordinated energy policy for the European Union. What does that mean for nuclear power?

LJ: We will see a move towards a common EU energy policy, in which energy security and climate change will be high priorities. Both of those points lead in the direction of nuclear power. However, for the foreseeable future, the decision [whether or not to build new nuclear plants] will be left to the respective member states.

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