Hintergrund Technological dimension


Topic Overview ITRE I - Lyon '15


1. Key terms

Energy mix: the range of energy sources of a region – including e.g. fossil fuel, alongside nuclear and renewable energies - which depends on the availability of resources or the possibility of importing these.

Energy independence: means being independent from on foreign energy therefore not relying on EU external suppliers.

Energy efficiency: the use of less energy to provide the same service or, alternatively, to the generation of more service per unit of energy used.

Nuclear safety: safe operation of nuclear power plants. It is complemented by radiation protection and radioactive waste management.

Nuclear safeguards: measures put in place by national or regional governments to ensure that nuclear materials are used only for the peaceful purposes thus complying with international obligations.

2. Relevance and explanation of the issue

“We need a peaceful divorce between economic growth and emissions.“ – Fatih Birol

The European Union (EU) currently imports over half of its energy as it has few energy reserves of its own. This energy dependence has an enormous impact on the economy having an annual cost of around €400 billion. Through energy imports, the EU is also very reliant on its trade relations with countries like Algeria, United States, Saudi-Arabia and primarily with Russia, leaving the EU vulnerable to supply disruptions. For instance, in 2009 a Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute left many EU countries with severe energy shortages. Moreover, the EU gets 80% of its energy from fossil fuels – particularly coal and gas – the burning of which is causing changes in the global climate. [1]

According to the European Commission (EC) the way forward seems to be the creation of a common Energy Union [2] which will ensure a secure, affordable and climate-friendly energy mix. This strategy has essentially five goals: ensuring security of supply, building a single internal energy market, raising energy efficiency, decarbonising national economies, and promoting research and innovation.[3] Furthermore, in 2014, EU countries have agreed on a new 2030 Framework for climate and energy, including EU-wide targets and policy objectives for the period between 2020 and 2030. These targets aim to help the EU achieve a more competitive, secure and sustainable energy system and to meet its long-term 2050 greenhouse gas reductions target. [4]

Nowadays, nuclear power plants [5] generate almost 30% of the electricity produced in the EU – or in other words, 130 nuclear reactors operating in different EU countries – and remain the largest source of low-carbon electricity. The conventional power plants have Uranium as its basic fuel, the continued mining of which can only still last for about 90 years. [6] However, international events, such as the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011 [7], have changed the perception related to nuclear power generation and tightened the security requirements for nuclear technologies. And even though the EU has energy rules set at the European level, each Member State decides alone whether to include nuclear power in its energy mix or not.

The continued use of nuclear power might be assured by the power plants that use thorium fission or fusion as alternative to those that use the conventional uranium fission which poses considerably higher risks. According to the United Nations (UN) nuclear agency IAEA, the use of Thorium [8] - whose mines are spread over all continents in large quantities - in nuclear power plants results in only limited radioactive waste and is safer in terms of chemical stability and resistance to radioactivity besides creating zero-emission energy. It is also more difficult to create nuclear weapons when using thorium as fuel. However thorium requires more shielding and other protection for workers, which increases the costs for the companies that use thorium as its power source. Alternatively fusion energy [9] could offer the possibility of clean and safe energy as it would not produce radioactive waste and there is only a very limited risk of leakage of radioactive material. [10] However, concerning fusion energy there are still some technological/engineering challenges to overcome – temperature, time and containment - to make fusion power plants functional.

Read more:

Energy Union Package

Nuclear Energy

„Nuclear Energy, what Everyone needs to know“ by Charles D. Ferguson

3. Key Questions

» To what extent should Member States include nuclear energy in their energy mix? And to what extend should they be allowed to decide this for themselves on a national level?

» Is nuclear power vital to ensure the security of the EU’s energy supply or are alternatives available? And if so, which ones?

» Is the danger of climate change bigger than the danger posed by nuclear disaster?

» What measures need to be taken to ensure a sustainable and environmentally friendly energy mix?

4. Key Facts and Figures

The EU is the largest energy importer in the world, importing 53% of its energy, at an annual cost of around €400 billion. In 2014 in the EU 26.9% of electricity was nuclear, 40.5% was from fossil fuels (down from 49% in 2011), 18.5% hydro, and 14.4% other renewables. [11]

The EU depends on nuclear power for more than one-quarter of its electricity, and a higher proportion of base-load power. [12] Nuclear power also provides over half of low-carbon electricity. An inch long pellet of Uranium-235 has more energy than one ton of coal. A fission reaction is about a million times more energetic than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal, oil or gas.

5. Key Actors

The Member States are responsible for their own national energy policies and mixes. However, as energy is a shared competence between EU and the Member States, the national governments have the power to adopt binding acts by themselves but need to primarily comply with the targets outlined by EU legislation.

The European Parliament (EP) enables decision-making at a European level, acting as a common unifier between the Member States, while the European Council defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorites. The European Commission is another key actor as it put forward the Energy Roadmap and prepares proposals related to energy. It also has the duty to verify that public money is spent to support companies in line with the EU state aid rules, aiming to preserve competition in the Single Market.

Influence and power over energy matters are not limited to national or European political institutions, but are shared with energy organisations. Directly related with nuclear energy, there is the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) which was founded with the purpose of creating a specialist market for nuclear power in Europe, developing nuclear energy and distributing it to its Member States while selling the surplus to non-Member States. Furthermore, the voice of the European nuclear industry in energy policy discussions with EU institutions and other stakeholds is assured by FORATOM which promotes the development of nuclear energy in Europe. The United Nations (UN) nuclear agency IAEA has also an important role as it promotes the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. Its main goals are to contribute to international peace and security, and to the world's Millennium Goals [13] for social, economic and environmental development.

Read more:

Euratom Supply Agency



6. Key Conflicts

Despite the EU’s energy dependency for more than one-quarter of its total energy supply, nuclear power is not a notable part on the European Commission’s Energy Union Strategy. The Commission admits that nuclear energy produces about 30% of the EU's electricity however they do not grant an important role to this way of energy production within the EU Energy Union. This silence has split the Member States. There are the ones who have been pushing for “a package of initiatives to develop a supportive EU framework for safe and sustainable nuclear power”[14] - Romania, France, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the UK in particular - and others that are have completely anti-nuclear policies – such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece –. Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2020, as well as the temporary closure of two Belgian reactors, has stepped up pressure for leaving nuclear power in Europe. But it is the Member States themselves that have sole responsibility for choosing whether or not to use nuclear power.

Skepticism has been also noticed by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, which argues that the overarching focus of the energy union is to revive nuclear power. The Greens were also the only ones to openly welcome the parliament's budgetary control committee’s decision in March[15] that refused to recommend granting a discharge to the EU budget for the ITER nuclear fusion project.

There is also the environmental cost. Unlike fossil-fuels, nuclear reactors do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide (CO2) while operating. However, the world has built more than 430 commercial nuclear reactors since the start of the nuclear era, and still don't know how to deal with the radioactive waste [16] -highly reactive and with a very long half-life [17] – which means it will remain a threat for thousands of years.

Read more:

Member States in meltdown over energy union’s nuclear silence


7. Measures Already in Place

After the Lisbon Treaty, energy became a shared competence of the EU, however currently there is still no EU-wide legislation concerning locally produced energy. National governments are responsible for introducing or changing national legislation concerning energy, in order to comply with the EU’s binding targets.

However, in recent years, the EU has launched a number of initiatives and adopted a number of laws, which aim to foster a transparent and non-ideological debate on nuclear power and to ensure that nuclear power plants are operated in a safe and responsible manner throughout Europe. The legal basis is the 1957 Euratom Treaty[18] which established the European Atomic Energy Community in order to transnationally regulate radiation protection, transport of radioactive substances and waste, waste management, safeguarding nuclear materials, safety of nuclear power plants and nuclear research and training activities.

In 2011, the EC published the Energy Roadmap 2050[19] indicating that nuclear energy makes “a significant contribution to the energy transformation process” and is “a key source of low-carbon electricity generation.” It also emphasizes that nuclear energy “contributes to lower system costs and electricity prices”.

In 2014, EU countries agreed on the Climate and Energy framework 2030[20] which promotes a competitive secure and low-carbon EU economy. The EC proposes a new reduction target for GHG emissions of 40% below the 1990 level. It has also endorsed achieving at least 27% renewable energy in the EU's final energy consumption and a 27% or greater improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.

A legally binding greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 requires the EU to collectively reduce its emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels. It sends a strong signal about the EU's commitment to tackling global warming ahead of international climate talks to be held in Paris next year.

The Horizon 2020 work programme [21] is an European multi-year Framework which, through a €77 billion budget, aims to: (i) reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions by means of the intelligent and sustainable use of energy, (ii) produce electricity at low cost and low emission, (iii) research mobile energy resources and alternative fuels, (iv) set up a unique smart European electricity grid, (v) invent new greener technologies and (vi) adopt energy innovation.

8. Abstract

Increasing evidence of climate change and growing dependency on energy has underlined the EU’s determination to become a low-energy economy and will to ensure that energy consumed is in a secure, safe, competitive and sustainable way. If nothing changes, energy related emissions of carbon dioxide will nearly double by 2050 and increased fossil energy demand will enhance concerns over the security of supplies.

The conventional nuclear energy and other alternatives, such as Thorium fission and nuclear fusion, can play a key role in decarbonising the energy sector by providing a stable source of low-carbon electricity. Even though nuclear energy is contributing to the EU’s energy independence, since 30% of the electricity produced in the EU comes from nuclear energy production, some member states, such as Germany, have adopted a strongly anti-nuclear policy and intent to withdraw from the use of nuclear energy completely. Therefore, Member States are now facing the choice of whether to include nuclear power in its energy mix or not. What way should the EU choose in using nuclear energy for the European energy mix and do alternatives, such as Thorium or fusion power plants, pave a way forward?

9. Links for Further Research

EU Energy in figures

The European Union explained: Energy

Nuclear Energy Fact Sheet

Fusion for Energy highlights 2014

EURATOM Supply Agency: Annual Report


[1] Climate Change Fact Sheet

[2] Video: Energy Union

[3] Commission Priority: Energy Union

[4] Find out more: 2050 Energy strategy

[5] Video: Nuclear Energy Explained: Risk or Opportunity

[6] According to the World Nuclear Association

[7] Fukushima Accident

[8] Thorium Energy Report

[9] Find out more: Fusion for Energy

[10] Fusion Energy could be the future

[11] Nuclear Energy in the European Union

[12] This part of electricity demand which is continuous, and does not vary over a 24-hour period. Approximately equivalent to the minimum daily load.

[13] UN Millennium Goals

[14] FORATOM Publications

[15] MEPs' concerns with ITER budget

[16] Greenpeace: Nuclear is not the answer to the phase-out of fossil fuels

[17] The time in which one half of the atoms of a particular radioactive substance disintegrate into another nuclear form. Measured half-lives vary from millionths of a second to billions of years.

[18] Euratom Treaty

[19] Roadmap 2050

[20] 2030 Energy Strategy

[21] Horizon 2020