Richard Ivens holds a BSc degree in Chemistry from Imperial College, London. After graduating, he worked for 21 years in nuclear fuel cycle research at the Sellafield site of British Nuclear Fuels plc. Following a period of secondment to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, Mr Ivens was appointed in 1992 to establish and manage the BNFL Brussels Office. Since October 2006, Mr Ivens has worked for the Brussels-based European nuclear industry trade association FORATOM, where he holds the title of Director Institutional Affairs.
Tell us a little about FORATOM and what its role is.
FORATOM, full name European Atomic Forum, is the trade association for Europe’s nuclear industry. We are based in Brussels, close to the European Parliament and the European Commission. Our principal role is to represent the views of the industry in EU energy policy discussions and to help shape the course of EU legislation relevant to the operations of our member companies. We have members in 14 of the EU Member States and in two non-EU countries – Switzerland and Ukraine. In total, we represent around 800 companies with a turnover of EUR 70 billion per year supporting around 800,000 jobs.
In its Green Paper: A 2030 Framework for climate and energy policies1, the EC aims to achieve competitiveness, security of supply and sustainability for energy in the EU. How do you see the future for nuclear energy in the energy mix, in relation to these goals?
Nuclear energy offers significant benefits vis-a-vis all three pillars of EU energy policy. Without doubt, the existing fleet of nuclear reactors in the EU, currently providing 27% of the EU’s electricity, is competitive against all but the cheapest coal-fired generating capacity, which is why the utilities operating nuclear plants are generally seeking to extend operating lives under regulatory control for as long as it is economic and safe to do so. The International Energy Agency has indicated that in every region of the world, nuclear power plants produce the cheapest electricity. New nuclear power plants will be more expensive, especially for first-of-a-kind, but the UK government, for example, has agreed a ‘strike price’ for the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant that is lower than for onshore wind, so nuclear will remain competitive with other low-carbon energies.
Nuclear enhances security of supply because it provides diversity from other energy sources, it operates at high levels of availability around the clock, and because it doesn’t depend on short-term, potentially unreliable fuel deliveries. Uranium fuel is easy to stockpile for years ahead and is obtainable from a range of geo-politically stable countries. In terms of sustainability, nuclear power life-cycle emissions of greenhouse gases are very low, similar to those for onshore wind. For this reason, nuclear is a genuine “low-carbon” energy source, currently providing more than half of the EU’s low-carbon electricity.
Despite these benefits, public views regarding nuclear energy vary widely across the Member States and the choice of whether or not to include nuclear in the national energy mix is highly politicised. Shortly after the Fukushima nuclear accident, 12 Member States reaffirmed their long-term commitment to nuclear electricity production. In addition, three Member States – Poland, Croatia and Lithuania – restated plans to enter or re-enter the nuclear electricity market. On the other hand, Germany decided to phase out all its nuclear plants by 2022. The future is therefore difficult to predict, but FORATOM expects EU nuclear capacity in 2050 to be similar to the current level, meaning that nuclear fission will still be making a major contribution to the EU’s energy goals. This is in contrast to the rest of the world, where nuclear output is expected to grow rapidly.
There have been calls for a ‘level playing field’ in the European energy market, for example in terms of dropping subsidies for renewable energies. What are your thoughts on this, and what difference might this make to the future contribution of nuclear power?
FORATOM has been one of those organisations calling for a ‘level playing field’. We believe that in order to decarbonise the EU’s electricity sector by 2050, an effective carbon price has to be set and then all forms of low-carbon energy should be allowed to compete in the market on equal terms, that is - without subsidies. In that way, decarbonisation can be achieved at the lowest cost to the consumer. Competing on equal terms also means accounting for the full system costs, including transmission, distribution and back-up when necessary. The German Energiewende experience, with transition to renewables expected by former Environment Minister, Peter Altmaier, to cost up to one trillion euros - and ironically leading to increased CO2 emissions in the short term - has undoubtedly strengthened the resolve of other Member States to stay with nuclear.
With the main new markets for nuclear power located in Asia and emerging economies, how can we best continue to use and develop the technological skills and experience acquired in this sector in Europe?
The European nuclear industry clearly recognises that there is huge potential to export its products and know-how to growing nuclear markets in the rest of the world. This applies across the whole nuclear cycle – not only in supplying nuclear reactors but also in providing fuel services as well as expertise in waste management and decommissioning. European companies are already involved, for example, in China, India, South-East Asia, the Middle East, and South America. However, the competition from countries such as Japan, South Korea and Russia is fierce and, with other countries acquiring the technology, is likely to get stronger. The answer lies in maintaining a vibrant home market for nuclear energy and also in strengthening Europe’s nuclear research. We should aim to reverse the decline in nuclear fission research spending at EU level and not focus solely on research related to safety. Only by preserving Europe’s technological lead in the key reactor and fuel cycle systems can we be sure of cornering a significant share of this lucrative market. If Europe doesn’t do it, the rest of the world will!
The public’s main concerns about nuclear energy are related to safety and waste. How do you feel the EU is dealing with these issues, especially in terms of lessons learned from the Fukushima accident? What more could be done?
The EU nuclear reactor “stress tests” (safety and security reassessments) carried out in the wake of the Fukushima accident have been hailed as a breakthrough in terms of successful cooperation between national safety regulators, transparency and public reassurance. As a result of these tests, no nuclear reactor operating in the EU has been required to shut down. The recommendations being implemented, in order to strengthen resistance to highly improbable natural events, will take nuclear safety to unprecedented levels. Key elements of the stress tests have been enshrined in the 2014 revision of the EU Nuclear Safety Directive2 and are being considered for inclusion in the international Nuclear Safety Convention.
With respect to waste, the 2011 EU Spent Fuel & Radioactive Waste Management Directive3 requires the Member States to provide national programmes for the disposal of all types of radioactive waste by August 2015. These two legislative measures will ensure that important progress is made on safety and waste management which should help alleviate public concerns. On top of that, there is always scope for more to be done in terms of public awareness through education and consultation. All forms of energy have benefits and drawbacks and there needs to be a proper, rational debate at EU level so that decision-makers and the public at large can make more informed energy choices. Perhaps the reconstituted Berlin Forum will provide a platform for this discussion.
Nuclear energy is a central part of the European Union’s SET-Plan for a low carbon Europe. Is the SET-Plan still a useful framework for steering future EU energy policy? What changes might be needed?
The inclusion of nuclear energy in the SET-Plan has enabled nuclear to take its rightful place among the low-carbon technologies being developed for the future. The SET-Plan recognised the importance of securing the long-term operation of the existing nuclear fleet and also of developing the next generation of nuclear reactors (Generation IV) for improved sustainability. On the strength of these goals, the Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform, now with 120 members, was established in 2007 and the European Sustainable Nuclear Industrial Initiative (ESNII) was launched officially in November 2010.
Under SNETP, a new legal entity – NUGENIA – has been created to coordinate research on current reactors. All these developments have been positive but there remains the problem of financing, in the current economic climate, the large demonstration facilities required to test and establish new technology. One change that might help would be to open up all the EU support mechanisms to all the low-carbon technologies, including nuclear. Too often nuclear research funding is pigeonholed under the Euratom Treaty whereas nowadays there is no logical reason to differentiate on legal grounds. We would also like to see more use being made of the Structural Funds for supporting major nuclear research facilities.
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