Energy Nuclear 28 May, 2020 10:00 am   
COMMENTS: Witold Strzelecki

Strzelecki: Nuclear energy confirmed its resistance to crises (INTERVIEW)

Nuclear power plants have confirmed their flexibility and strong resistance to crises. Power generation continued without a single interruption and was never at risk, which means EU energy security was also safe – says Witold Strzelecki, expert at Foratom, a trade association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe. The coronavirus epidemic impacted nearly every branch of the energy sector. How has it affected nuclear energy?

Witold Strzelecki: Foratom is a trade association of over 3 thousand companies from the nuclear sector from across Europe. We represent our clients during talks with EU institutions. Currently, we monitor on a daily basis how this situation impacts the companies we represent. Additionally, we are paying extra attention to the 108 nuclear reactors that produce power in the European Union.

On the basis of the analyses we have conducted, I can honestly confirm that the nuclear sector passed the crisis test. First of all, the operators of nuclear reactors do their best to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of power, which is necessary for the economy to function. They act in line with the highest safety standards, whose goal is to minimize the risk of spreading the virus among their employees and to maintain strict security standards for nuclear installations.

Does this mean the nuclear energy sector managed to avoid serious problems?

All nuclear reactors in the European Union work without any interruptions, which has a positive impact on, among others, the bloc’s energy security. Currently a third of power produced in the European Union and, what is equally important, almost 50% of low-carbon power in the EU is generated in nuclear power plants.

In comparison to other baseload electricity sources, nuclear energy’s advantage is that it does not need a constant supply of new fuel. According to the latest report issued by the Euratom Supply Agency, the current uranium reserves (stored by nuclear reactors operators in the European Union) would allow reactors to work for an average of three years continuously.

When it comes to the pandemic, we do see how it has impacted the ongoing functioning of companies from the sector, and how it will impact some of the planned projects. In the short term some companies had to already limit those activities, which are not essential to generating electricity. This happened at the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Sellafield in the UK and at the mine owned by Cameco in Canada. Restrictions in international transport are also very important factor in this, as well as the decreased demand for power, which in an obvious way impacted energy prices on the wholesale market.

Another important result of the pandemic, which has been already talked about, is the possible delay of construction of new nuclear blocks that are either in their planning stage or already underway. On the one hand, this is already happening in, e.g. Bulgaria, where because of the coronavirus the tender to select a strategic investment in the Belene project will be prolonged.

On the other, the long-term question is how the current situation will impact the EU energy policy. For instance, will the bloc readjust its deadlines or targets? Many member states believe nuclear energy is the answer to a successful decarbonization of their energy sectors, this is why it is essential to include it in the legislation that is being currently prepared, for instance, in the Just Transition Fund. Despite the fact that in the 2018 long-term strategy “A Clean Planet for All” (the so-called winter package – ed.), the European Commission confirmed nuclear energy and renewable energy sources will become the foundation of a zero-emission energy sector in Europe by 2050, in subsequent documents presented at the international arena, nuclear energy is not treated on par with other low-emission sources.

What solutions has the sector implemented? Every country is battling drops in energy demand, for instance France.

Every operator introduced security measures that are adjusted to the situation in a given country, which means the solutions may significantly differ. Importantly, these actions are monitored at the international level by, among others, the World Association of Nuclear Operators that is working on facilitating the flow of information, exchange of experience and good practices between operators. The International Atomic Energy Agency is also engaged in monitoring the situation.

From the perspective of Foratom members it is worth stressing that all operators had early on started the implementation of the so-called business continuity plans and introduced a number of preventative measures whose goal was to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. For instance, in case of France’s EDF such a plan was drafted on the basis of, among others, the lessons learned from the SARS and H1N1 (swine flu) epidemics, which to a large degree included the current scenario. All of these actions are pursued in close cooperation with national institutions and regulators that monitor nuclear facilities. The fact that all reactors in the European Union work without interruptions confirms that these solutions turned out to be effective.

The solutions to guarantee the safety of employees include the usage of protective equipment by all employees, adherence to social distancing rules and introduction of additional shifts, as well as planning work in a way that limits contact between employees. Wherever possible remote work was introduced and only essential workers were allowed to come to work. In nuclear power plants back-up teams are often set up to cover critical functions. They make it possible to replace employees in case it’s needed.
It is also worth mentioning that companies from the nuclear sector often support the fight against SARS-CoV-2 at the national level, for instance, by providing professional protective gear to hospitals, masks and disinfectant, as well as financial support. They also engage in working on increasing the ability to conduct coronavirus tests, which is taking place, for instance, in Belgium. In some cases the companies even offer free electricity to hospitals.

Has the nuclear energy sector drawn conclusions from the pandemic?

The sector passed the test. At this moment we are analyzing the situation in detail and learning all possible lessons. It is definitely too early to conduct a thorough analysis because the pandemic has not ended yet. Such an analysis will also have to take into consideration the entirety of all actions and the virus’s impact from the European perspective, but also from the point of view of individual companies. The most important conclusion we can arrive at this stage is the fact that nuclear power plants have confirmed their flexibility and strong resistance to crises. Power generation continued without a single interruption and was never at risk, which means EU energy security was also safe.

In this context the EU’s future energy policy, especially considering the ongoing works on the European Green Deal, should pay more attention to energy security (in the short- and long-term). This issue should be given more attention in discussions on the EU energy mix by 2050. The EU Industrial Strategy and the EU Recovery Plan, which are currently being drafted, should include nuclear energy to a larger degree, also because of its economic benefits: impact on economic development, jobs and technological development. At Foratom we believe that for the EU to conduct an efficient decarbonization, the bloc cannot disregard nuclear energy, which, because of its features, should together with renewable energy sources constitute the EU’s energy mix in the long term.

The debate on small modular reactors (SMR) is still taking place. This technology has been in development for years, yet it still exists on paper only. What do you think about its potential?

SMRs are a game changer and the future of the sector that may revolutionize its image and help EU member states implement climate goals. At Foratom we believe the development of the nuclear sector until 2050 should be based on three pillars, i.e. extending the operation of nuclear power plants in comparison to the initially planned exploitation time (the so-called LTO – long-term operation), new large-scale projects, as well as III/III+ generation reactors and development of new generation reactors, including SMRs.

At the international level and in various member states the interest in this technology is growing. At the end of the previous year, a conference in Brussels was held with representatives from the EU and US and then-US Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Miguel Arias Cañete the then Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action. Both have made clear statements about the potential of this technology, which the US is developing. The US Energy Department has even recently confirmed it would engage financially in projects in this area. The United States has shown that the future of its energy and nuclear sector is linked with the development of the SMR technology. The European Union is clearly behind, also when it comes to investments in research and development of nuclear energy. Actually, the EU falls behind not only the US, but also China and Russia.

Despite the fact that EU institutions are behind the rest of the world, it is very apparent that member states believe this technology has a bright future ahead and many countries include it in their energy plans.

At what stage is the research on SMRs?

The work on this technology is currently at different stages in states such as France and Great Britain. The situation in Estonia is especially interesting, as the work there is moving very rapidly and receives solid support from the government. A letter of intent was signed with the provider of technology, feasibility studies are taking place, new European companies are joining the project and recently the authorities of three administrative areas expressed interest in locating the reactor in their vicinity. If this project is completed, it might become a great example for others.

Additionally, a lot of European companies (such as Czech Republic’s CEZ and Romania’s NuclearElectrica) have recently signed letters of intent with technology providers from outside of the EU. Poland’s project called Synthos is promising and is pursued in cooperation with GE Hitachi. It is an interesting example of how this technology may serve the needs of industry.

SMRs have a lot of advantages, which means their development in the coming decades looks promising. They may significantly contribute to the decarbonization of other industrial sectors, for instance, by producing hydrogen, which is being vividly discussed at the EU level. They can also be used to produce heat. Finland is currently conducting advanced research on this functionality. Thanks to their flexibility, SMRs may also make it easier to integrate renewable energy sources. Their obvious advantage is also their small size, which means it would be easier to adapt them to various needs, e.g. locating them in direct vicinity of factories that will use the power and heat generated by the SMR.

For this technology to develop in the European Union, a few conditions need to be fulfilled. First of all, EU institutions should include it to a greater degree in regulations that pertain to projects beyond the energy sector. They should also support member states that want to develop this technology by facilitating international R&D cooperation and SMR licensing. The European nuclear industry should speed up the works on constructing the first SMR prototypes, which could be used to present the technology’s advantages. Additionally, technology providers and clients should cooperate closer with national regulatory bodies to work out solutions facilitating this technology at the earliest stage of development possible (e.g. during the process where new security solutions are developed). Obviously, it is also absolutely essential that technology providers and clients design an economic model that will confirm the benefits of investing in this technology. These requirements confirm the development of this technology and its practical application in EU states is not an easy task, but most definitely this is the future of this sector. The launch of this technology in Europe depends on how and how quickly these conditions will be met.

Interview by Patrycja Rapacka