The competition is on for Eastern Europe’s nuclear power market

26 November 2020

On 20 November, the EU published the draft guidelines under the EU’ green taxonomy, a long-awaited policy document that could become the world’s first “green-list” for international investors. Part of the EU Green Deal programme, the taxonomy aims to channel investments into low-carbon, sustainable projects, which makes the absence of nuclear power in the taxonomy, as a low-carbon energy source, just the more curious.

The decision to exclude nuclear isn’t entirely self-explanatory. After all, the European Commission’s climate Chief Frans Timmermans recently confirmed that Brussels “won’t stand in the way” of new nuclear plants in the EU – although the taxonomy draft seems to discourage the use of nuclear as a tool in fighting climate change. Yet in doing so, Brussels is at odds with current developments in its Eastern and Central member states, where governments are pushing hard to modernize and expand their nuclear fleets in an attempt to slash carbon emissions from their energy mix.

Nuclear momentum

It’s not as if several EU members states such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania have been waiting for approval from Brussels in opting for nuclear power. There would be little that Brussels could do to stop the trend in any case, according to Rauli Partanen, a Finnish energy analyst and author.

“From a political perspective, Timmermans’s announcement was perhaps needed and is encouraging, even if it was basically confirming what we already knew should be the case,” Partanen tells Sustainability Times. “According to EU founding documents, each member nation has the right to choose its own energy mix. However, what would be even more preferable – if the EU really means business about climate change mitigation – is a statement that nuclear will be treated equally to other low-carbon energy sources in the EU, such as by including it in taxonomies, ecolabels, COVID recovery funds etc.,” the expert laments.

“It is still being left out purely on ideological grounds and, in my opinion, simply in order to get it marginalized and excluded. From a climate perspective, this is highly irresponsible,” Partanen stresses.

The price is right

This ideological exclusion is partially to blame for the high costs of nuclear projects in what has been coined the “antinuclear prejudice premium”. With pricing always being a hotly-debated issue, opponents of nuclear argue – in the light of Eastern EU’s renewed interest in the energy source – that the cost of building NPPs in the region is prohibitively expensive, citing the need for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria to invest in renewables instead. However, this ignores that vendor competition is key in lowering the overall cost of projects – a stiff competition already in full swing from Poland to Romania.

Indeed, Eastern Europe’s emphasis on nuclear energy has triggered a “gold rush” of sorts among nuclear vendors from the United States, Russia, China and South Korea, which are all hoping for a share of the lucrative local market. According to Bloomberg, as the U.S. goes head to head with Russia and China in the region, it is the latter two that appear to have an edge because they are offering package deals. “As I see it, the key advantages are low-cost funding for a project supplied by the seller (or seller government) and the ease for the buyer when they get a turnkey contract or similar package,” Partanen says.

The US Energy Department, meanwhile, conceded in an April report to be “entirely absent” from the global new build reactor market, although the winds are seemingly beginning to blow from a different direction as well. According to Partanen, “Quite recently the US made a decision to enable funding for nuclear projects abroad as well, so this might be changing.”

A question of technology

Apart from pricing, reliability issues and safety concerns are also important factors to influence a government’s decision-making. While the US has clinched several preliminary deals, its AP1000 pressurized water reactor technology has been struggling with reliability issues. The technology, thus far operating commercially only at China’s Sianmen 2, has seen problems with its reactor coolant pumps and only operated at 20% of its full capacity since 2019. This could make it difficult for US vendors to grab market share in the region from Russian nuclear group Rosatom, which is already familiar to local engineers in many of the countries concerned, and whose five Gen III+ VVER-1200 reactors have been operating in Russia and abroad for several years.

“Rosatom has previous generations of VVER reactors already operating in many of these countries and it could also be already supplying fuel and other services for those reactors,” Partanen explains. “The company has also built many of its VVER1000 and VVER1200 reactors. This is a significant advantage as these supply chains and procedures are complicated to build again. The exact extent of this advantage is hard to measure, however, and would depend on the country and the specific situation.”

A matter of acceptance?

Regardless of which technology these countries adopt in the end, they are doing well to take concrete steps on nuclear power, Partanen says. “The acceptance of nuclear has been growing steadily for the past years for several reasons. Notably, younger climate activists have managed to shed the burden that the previous generation carried over from the Cold War era and they see the extremely large potential nuclear technology has for mitigating climate change,” the Finnish energy expert says.

This is also helping to broadly change the climate change debate, expanding it from one generally dominated by progressive and left-leaning audiences to include conservative ones as well: “The established climate debate has revolved around renewables while denying nuclear a share, which has made mitigation efforts both slower and more costly than they need to be.” However, “Nuclear has also offered the conservative side of the political spectrum a way to get into the discussion about climate mitigation as they can say that we need to mitigate climate change, but we need to be effective and technologically neutral about it,” Partanen adds.

Even if Brussels is seemingly lacking this neutrality, Eastern EU members seem undeterred – and may just help to make the debate more nuanced.

Image: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr

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