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The steady decline of nuclear power in Europe

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The European Commission (EC) released its 'Communication on a Nuclear Illustrative Programme' (PINC) in early April, along with a 'Staff Working Document' which informs the main report.1,2 The report covers all aspects of civil nuclear programs in the EU, with an emphasis on required investments. Periodic publication of PINC reports is a requirement under Article 40 of the Euratom Treaty.

The report states that nuclear power produces 27% of electricity averaged across EU countries, the same amount as renewables. There are 129 nuclear power reactors in operation in 14 EU countries, with a total capacity of 120 gigawatts (GW).

The report predicts a decline in EU nuclear capacity up to 2025, followed by a slight increase, but nuclear capacity of 95‒105 GW in 2050 is still projected to be below the current level of 120 GW. Nuclear power's contribution to total EU electricity generation is expected to fall from 27% now to 17‒21% in 2050.

Thus the EC anticipates a continuation of a pattern of decline that is already underway in the EU: since the PINC 2007 report, no new reactor has come online, no reactor construction has begun, no new reactor has been ordered since Flamanville-3 in 2007, no new reactor has been connected to the grid since Cernavoda-2 in Romania in 2007, and 21 fewer reactors are operating (a 14% decline).

New build projects are "envisaged" in 10 EU countries:

  • Four reactors are under construction ‒ in Finland, France and Slovakia.
  • Reactor projects in Finland, Hungary and the UK are undergoing licensing processes.
  • Reactors projects are at a "preparatory stage" in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.

EU reactors are, on average, 29 years old. The PINC report notes that without lifetime extension programs, 90% of the existing reactors would be shut down by 2030. The EC anticipates that there will be many reactor lifetime extensions and that by 2030 the majority of the fleet will be operating beyond its original design life. The EC also anticipates 80 GW of new capacity added by 2050, with France and the UK accounting for about two-thirds of the 80 GW.

The closure of a large majority of existing EU reactors by 2050 is beyond dispute, whereas the predictions regarding lifetime extensions and new build are highly uncertain. The PINC report notes that "there is of course a high degree of uncertainty as regards long term projected nuclear capacity" and that "only a small share of investments" in lifetime extensions or new build have already been approved by national authorities.

Thus the PINC report is highly speculative regarding lifetime extensions and new build, yet it still projects a decline in nuclear capacity.


The PINC report is quite superficial for an analysis of civil nuclear programs in Europe. It ignores a raft of issues that ought to be addressed and it deals in generalizations and euphemisms. On safety, for example, the PINC report states that nuclear reactor safety standards in the EU are "high" but "further improvements" are required, it is "crucial to ensure the swift and thorough implementation of the legislation adopted post-Fukushima", and the reactor fleet "is aging and significant investments are needed where Member States opt for a lifetime extension of some reactors (and related safety improvements)".

In a detailed review of a draft of the PINC report, WISE Paris corrects the EC's errors and fills in the gaps.3 PINC congratulates the EU for its role in ensuring the adoption of the 'Vienna declaration', by which Contracting Parties to the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety committed to improve safety standards. WISE Paris points out that the IAEA Convention meeting was a flop, with the abandonment of proposed changes that would mandate upgrades to post-Fukushima safety standards.

WISE Paris notes that the PINC report is silent on uneven and inadequate emergency plans. And the PINC report is silent on the related issue of cross-border concerns and the need to address them. For example France has several aging nuclear plants that are unsettling its neighbors.4 Luxembourg has offered to help finance the closure of an aging French nuclear plant near its border. Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said on April 11 that an accident at the Cattenom plant could "wipe the duchy off the map". In March, Germany demanded the closure of France's oldest nuclear plant, Fessenheim, near the German and Swiss borders.

Whereas the PINC 2008 report recommended that "a more coherent and harmonised liability scheme should be developed to ensure a comparable level of protection for citizens", PINC 2016 is silent on the issue of liability arrangements.

Generation IV reactors and small modular reactors

The PINC report acknowledges that fast reactors and other Generation IV concepts are going nowhere fast, but instead of saying that directly it says that some Generation IV research programs "may already advance significantly by 2050."

The PINC Staff Working Document states: "Full recycling remains for the moment a long term prospect and is in principle only feasible with the use of fast neutron reactors, which can be optimised to consume the plutonium and uranium efficiently and/or to incinerate long-lived minor actinides. Due to several uncertainties around the deployment of this type of reactors, including their high capital costs, the possibility of closing the fuel cycle has not been foreseen in this Staff Working Document."

The Staff Working Document notes that the nuclear industry has been considering the deployment of commercial small modular reactors (SMRs) since the 1950s, but little has come of it and only four SMRs are under construction in the world ‒ three water-cooled reactors (CAREM-25 in Argentina, KLT-40S and ABV-6M61 in Russia) and one gas-cooled reactor (HTR-PM in China). The absence of a licensed SMR design in the market "is a major challenge", the Staff Working Document notes.

The Staff Working Document notes that the cost of investment per kW is likely to be higher for SMRs compared to larger reactors. It drily notes that claims supporting SMR economics ‒ which emphasize standardization, learning effects, cost sharing and modularization ‒ "are difficult to quantify due to the lack of existing examples".

The Staff Working Document further states: "Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher)."

Nuclear economics

The PINC report notes that "new build projects in Europe are experiencing significant delays and cost overruns." The report points to broader problems with nuclear economics:

"The ongoing constructions of European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) in Finland and France have experienced significant cost overruns (more than 3 times over original budget each). Even though these are first-of-a-kind models with expectedly higher unit costs, they are also consistent with the industry's historical trend of cost escalation. In France, for example, and in spite of some favorable conditions that include centralized decision making, high degree of standardization and regulatory stability, construction costs per MWe in 1974 were 3 times lower than those of the units connected to the grid after 1990."

But the PINC report blends that sober reflection with wishful thinking such as this:

"Some new, first of a kind projects in the EU have experienced delays and cost overruns. Future projects using the same technology should benefit from the experience gained and cost-reduction opportunities, provided that an appropriate policy is established."

WISE Paris notes that current new build figures are far greater than the figures provided in the PINC 2007 report. PINC 2007 said that "a new nuclear plant involves an investment in the range of €2 to 3.5 billion (for 1000 MWe to 1600 MWe respectively)".

WISE Paris also notes that the latest PINC report envisages a reduction in average construction times, but historical data provided in the PINC report itself shows that the average reactor construction times in Europe have increased from one decade to the next since the 1950s.

Waste management and decommissioning

The PINC report states that Europe is "moving to a phase" where the back end of the fuel cycle ‒ i.e. waste management and decommissioning ‒ "will receive much greater attention". The report states:

"The back-end of the fuel cycle will need increasing levels of attention. It is estimated that more than 50 of the 129 reactors currently in operation in the EU are to be shut down by 2025. Careful planning and enhanced cooperation among Member States will be needed. Politically sensitive decisions will have to be taken by all EU Member States operating nuclear power plants regarding geological disposal and long-term management of radioactive waste. It is important not to postpone actions and investment decisions on these issues."

The report notes that there is little experience with decommissioning: 89 power reactors have been permanently shut down in Europe as of October 2015, but only three have been completely decommissioned (all in Germany).

The report states that, based on information provided by EU Member States, €253 billion (US$287b) will be needed for nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste management until 2050, comprising €123 billion for decommissioning and €130 billion for spent fuel and radioactive waste management including deep geological disposal. Barely half of the required back-end investments have been set aside to date ‒ €133 billion of €253 billion.

WISE Paris notes that the true costs are likely to far exceed the EC's figure of €253 billion. The PINC report provides a very low estimate for reactor decommissioning and waste management costs, and it completely ignores other nuclear facilities (enrichment, reprocessing etc.) such as those at Sellafield in the UK, and La Hague and Marcoule in France. WISE Paris estimates costs of over €480 billion (US$545b), comprising €110 billion for geological disposal, €300 billion for decommissioning of reactors and other nuclear facilities, and €73.9 billion for other waste management costs.

WISE Paris summarizes: "The investment needs presented by PINC 2016 are a groundless mix of underestimated costs applied to overestimated projections. Investment needs in new reactors and LTO [lifetime extensions] could be underestimated by one third and at least half respectively, making it even less likely that these investments are made. The Commission also appears to underestimate by more than half the possible costs for decommissioning and waste disposal, through a mix of low assumptions and omissions."

Green Member of the European Parliament Claude Turmes told Energy Post that the wide gap between committed funds and required funds for decommissioning and waste management amounts to an unfair advantage for nuclear power and should be investigated: "The European Commission now has a duty under the EU Treaty to follow up on the polluter pays principle. ... I think the PINC provides enough ground for a state aid investigation. If the money is missing, then the question is, 'who steps in?'"5


1. European Commission, 4 April 2016, 'Nuclear Illustrative Programme',
2. European Commission, 4 April 2016, 'Commission Staff Working Document, Accompanying the document: Communication from the Commission, Nuclear Illustrative Programme presented under Article 40 of the Euratom Treaty',

3. Yves Marignac and Manon Besnard / WISE Paris, 15 March 2016, 'PINC 2016 ‒ the Nuclear Illusory Programme', commissioned by Greens/EFA,

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4. 12 April 2016, 'Luxembourg offers France money to close nuclear plant',

5. Sonja van Renssen, 19 April 2016, 'EC expects large nuclear new-build programme despite escalating costs',