IN-DEPTH: Impending challenges of old age for European nuclear generation

Nuclear has been an important component of the European energy strategy for several decades. It currently accounts for around 28 percent of the EU domestic production of energy, and for about half of low carbon electricity. Its features provide security of energy supply and reduce EU reliance on fossil fuel and energy imports.

However, it also entails significant drawbacks, mainly related to public safety risks in the case of accidents and the disposal of nuclear waste.

After the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan in 2011, prevention and response systems came under the spotlight all over the world. In the European Union, Germany decided to pursue a progressive phase out by 2022 and stress tests were carried out at nuclear power plants in all Member States in order to improve the protection against extreme natural events and reinforce the ability to respond to emergency situations.

An essential overview of the current status of nuclear power generation in Europe, and of what future is in store for the industry, was provided by the European Commission with the recent Nuclear Illustrative Programme (PINC). It is the first report since the Fukushima disaster (the previous PINC study dates back to 2008), focusing on the investments in post-Fukushima safety upgrades and on the financing needs related to nuclear power plants’ decommissioning and the management of radioactive waste and spent fuel.

Key highlights of the study concern the so called back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, that is the whole process including temporary storage reprocessing and recycling before wastes are disposed. Europe holds one of the most ageing nuclear plant fleets in the world, with the average age approaching 30 years, and questions about long term operation (LTO) and/or replacement of the existing capacity are gradually becoming more urgent.

Currently there are 129 nuclear power reactors in operation with a total capacity of 120 GWe, located in 14 EU Member States (see map). According to the study, around 90 percent of the existing reactors would be shut down by 2030. When cost-effective, it is possible to extend the originally designed lifetime of a nuclear plant by 10 to 20 years, by undergoing a Long Term Operation (LTO) process granted case-by-case by national authorities and including safety upgrades, modernization or replacement of equipment and components. The Commission estimated the investment needs in LTO for the period 2015-2050 at around 47 billion euros.

Nuclear power plants in Europe by capacity and operational status. Map produced by Carbon Brief based on an extract of data from the IAEA PRIS database (2016) .


With or without long term operation programs, 90 percent of the existing nuclear electricity production capacity is to be replaced by 2050. The current situation shows clearly the two key areas of attention for European nuclear generation in the coming years. First, the strategy and investment needed to properly manage and dispose of the increasing amount of waste and spent fuel (some 122,000 m3 of radioactive waste is generated every year), together with those necessary to complete the decommissioning of the shut-down facilities. Second, the financial and operational planning required to replace the current installed capacity.

On the first issue, the challenges are huge. The world’s only functioning example of geological disposal facility is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, USA. In Europe, Finland, Sweden and France have the most advanced programs for nuclear permanent disposal, but the other Member States have no plans in the short term. Experience in decommissioning is also limited. Out of the 91 shut-down reactors in the EU (mostly in France, Germany and United Kingdom), only three have been completely decommissioned (all in Germany). There are 147 reactors in shutdown mode worldwide, but only 13 have been completely decommissioned (in addition to those in Germany), all in the United States.

According to the study, decommissioning activities and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel will cost around 253 billion euros, of which 123 billion for decommissioning and 130 billion for waste management (including deep geological disposal). A significant gap between projected and available financial resources emerged from the EU Commission’s study, as operators’ dedicated assets in 2014 amounted to around 133 billion euros, only 52 percent of the total estimated decommissioning and waste management costs.

Projection of nuclear installed capacity EU28 2015-2050. Source: Nuclear Illustrative Programme, Staff Working Document, European Commission (2016).


The second issue appears challenging as well. The PINC study foresees that EU nuclear generation capacity will remain stable at between 95 and 105 GWe by 2050, with small oscillations (see graph). To maintain these capacity levels, by progressively replacing most of the existing nuclear plants after LTO and shut-downs, investments between EUR 350 and 450 billion will be needed until 2050. Currently four new reactors are under construction in France, Slovakia and Finland, while Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania are considering building plans.


This article was first published on ICCG’s International Climate Policy Magazine n. 41.

(Image: Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, UK, 2014. Photo credit:Simon Ingram/Flickr)