Unlocking the potential: Decarbonizing the European Union through Uranium
Focus - Allegati
25 maggio 2023
17 minuti, 42 secondi
Federico Scarpa (Junior Researcher G.E.O. Economics)
Karin Michalikova (Junior Researcher G.E.O. Environment)
In light of recent geopolitical and economic developments, the European Union is confronted with the imperative of addressing the challenges of energy production and global warming. In this regard, the EU’s goal is to build a sustainable energy sources mix, in order to achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2050, and build its own strategic energy security. A critical aspect of this endeavor is reducing dependence on fossil fuel suppliers, particularly Russia as well as other politically unstable nations. In this corner, take place the brand new European Commission’s energy policy plan, better known as REPowerEU. This analysis focuses on the potential benefits of incorporating nuclear energy into the decarbonization plan and how helpful it could be alongside renewables in the energy independence and strategic security of the EU.
Nuclear energy is one of the most resilient and CO2-free sources, proved by the recent COVID-19 pandemic electricity supply (IAEA, 2021) Considering all the recent geopolitics developments, the European Union is focusing on reducing its fossil sources dependence aiming to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and build-up a resilient energy strategic security in order to definitely cut imports from Russia and other unstable countries, preventing potentially dangerous situations connected with fossil fuels shortages and price volatility. According to this, the possibility of achieving these challenging targets through a proper development of the nuclear energy sector shows up. The purpose of this analysis is to explain why the European Commission should include nuclear energy, alongside renewables, in the REPowerEU action plan to finally gain European energy independence and carbon neutrality.
From Uranium ore to nuclear fuel
Uranium is the gray-shining chemical element N°92 on the periodic table according to its atomic number (sum of protons) and is principally composed, in its natural status, by two main radioactive isotopes: U238 (99,3%) and U235 (0,7% c.a.) and a very small percentage of U234 and U233 (IAEA, 2020). These numbers identify the atomic mass number, which is the sum of protons and neutrons in one Uranium atom. These isotopes are classified “unstable” and for this reason they emit high energy particles in the form of Alpha Radiation, due to the very high number of neutrons. The half-life period of the U238 (most stable isotope) is estimated to be 4.4 billion years, enough to be classified as a long living isotope and a low Alpha emitter (occasionally and sporadically very low gamma radiation) (IAEA, 2020). U235 is the fissile one and that makes it suitable for the nuclear fuel rods utilized in every single nuclear fission reactor powered with Uranium currently in use worldwide, to produce energy by a controlled nuclear fission chain reaction which will be converted into electricity and distributed on the powerlines. The difference between U238 and U235 is the number of neutrons. In specific, the second one has 3 less of these and that makes it a perfect fissile material due to its increased chance to capture (and be hit by) a free neutron (properly slowed) and split into two lightweight elements. That’s what is called a nuclear fission. The products of this fission are energy, two lightweight elements and three neutrons. But the amount of U235 contained in one gram of pure Uranium is too low to make it useful in a nuclear reactor. For this reason, after being extracted, the Uranium ore must be purified and properly enriched to reduce the amount of U238 and increase U235 by 3% c.a.
The global Uranium reserves are located mainly in Australia (28%), Kazakhstan (15%), Africa (mainly Niger 4%, Namibia 7% and South Africa 5%) and Canada (9%). This means that European nuclear power plants are strictly connected with both western and pacific allies and the African continent. Even with Russia, regarding its relations with Kazakhstan and its worldwide Uranium ore export. Plus, Moscow holds 8% of global Uranium reserves. A little consideration regarding Chinese Uranium export must be included because Beijing holds 4% of the total world uranium reserves (OECD Uranium, 2020). The main European Uranium importer and producer is France, due to its influence in Sahel region, although the increasing destabilization of the area caused by rising terrorism menace and weak local governments unable to control inbound security. Following this perspective, we’re able to say that import of Uranium in EU is a strategic asset that must be protected against geopolitical deterioration, focusing on strengthening relationships with western allies and Australia, in order to decrease the import from Africa and Russia, where the geopolitical situation is not considered stable and could generate a possible shortage of Uranium reserves in the EU.
To get properly enriched nuclear fuel for a nuclear fission reactor, Uranium ores are sent (once purified from rocks, other metals and all kinds of any other contamination by nearby rocks in the mine) to an enrichment facility which basically reduces the amount of U238 and increases U235. In the making process, the pure Uranium is combined with Fluoride to get Uranium Hexafluoride and put into huge industrial centrifuges to separate from the gas, increasing the amount of U235. This process must be repeated enough times until reaching the desired level of enrichment. In this specific case: around 3% of U235. On the other side, the “waste” will be what is usually called “depleted Uranium”. In other words, Uranium with a very small quantity with U235 that can be considered nearly 100% U238. This will be employed in the making process of the armor piercing ammunition used by main battle tanks and medium caliber guns (20-40 mm) armor piercing rounds. Uranium has the physical property to ignite when colliding with other metals at high speed. This makes it perfect for the anti-armor/incendiary piercing rounds that spread into pieces and instantly catch on fire inside of an enemy tank once hit, increasing the chances to blow-up the ammunition storage compartment and destroy the vehicle. In addition, depleted uranium could be used in the reprocessing plants to produce new nuclear fuel rods from spent fuel extracted from a nuclear fission reactor.
An Overview of Energy Production in the European Union
The energy mix in the European Union is characterized by its diversity, comprising a range of energy sources. The ongoing commitment to increase the share of renewable energy sources has led to a significant achievement: according to the European Council, in 2022, almost 40% of Europe's total power production originated from renewable sources. This outcome is a result of a vast annual growth of 44 TWh in renewable energy production between the years 2020-2022 (Moore, 2022). In close proximity to renewable energy, fossil fuels occupy a substantial portion of the European power sector, accounting for 38.6%, whereas nuclear energy constitutes nearly 20% of the energy mix. Contrary to the popular belief, it is noteworthy that over half of renewable energy generated since 2019 has effectively replaced natural gas, rather than more polluting coal. Moreover, approximately one third of this renewable energy has displaced nuclear power (Moore, 2022). Therefore, this statistic indicates that the European energy mix experiences the following trends: increase of renewables, fossil fuel persistence and decrease of nuclear power.
The approach to nuclear energy in particular remains controversial. While France still remains the biggest producer of nuclear power in the EU, accounting for more than 70% of the country’s electricity (World Nuclear Association, 2023), its persisting governmental target from 2014 seeks to reduce the country’s nuclear share to 50% by 2035. Spain and Sweden remain to be amongst the main producers of nuclear energy in Europe, despite having significantly lower shares of nuclear energy compared to France (World Nuclear Association, 2023). In light of the ongoing downward trend, a statistical projection by the World Nuclear Association predicts a substantial reduction in European nuclear capacity. It is estimated that by 2030, Europe will lose its capacity to maintain its current share of nuclear energy at approximately one quarter of its overall energy since the number of soon-to be closed/approaching their end of life-span reactors is expected to surpass the number of new reactors under construction. Currently, the construction of new reactors is limited to two European countries, namely France and Slovakia. In contrast, Poland, Lithuania and Germany, as of April 2023, do not have any operating nuclear power plants (World Nuclear Association, 2023).
Nuclear energy and renewable sources: France’s greenest energy mix
France is the European Union country with the highest number of active nuclear reactors (56) responsible for an energy output production of 70% c.a. (NEA and IEA, 2022) on the total production by sources, which corresponds to over 60,000 MWe per year (NEA, 2022). This percentage is set to be lowered to 50% by 2035 due to decommissioning of the oldest reactors that reached their life-cycle end term (IEA, 2023).
The overall electricity production by source is described in the following graph:
It is clear that France energy mix is mainly composed by nuclear and renewables sources, with the achievement of being one of the “greenest” countries in Europe by electricity production with an annual share of CO2 emissions by 69g/KWh in 2021 (Electricity Map, 2021) and a total amount of 260.94 Mt of Carbon Dioxide emissions in 2020 (-24.44% from 1990) (IEA, France)
Running the largest fleet of nuclear reactors in Europe means that a huge amount of nuclear fuel must be stored. France’s main Uranium import partner is Niger ($833,000) (OEC Uranium and Thorium ore in France, 2021), followed by Canada and Kazakhstan. The french government is not directly involved in mining activities, instead companies like Orano which is a shareholder in the global Uranium market. Orano also owns the reprocessing plant in La Hague (Normandy, near the Flamanville nuclear power plant) which allows France to gain independence in the reprocessing of the spent nuclear fuel and trade reprocessed fuel rods worldwide, especially in South Africa, Russia and Switzerland (OEC Uranium and Thorium in France, 2021).
Alongside nuclear sources, France’s energy policy focuses on renewable ones, the complete decommission of coal power plants by 2022 and reducing the output energy production from oil and gas (IEA, 2021). Pursuing this goal, government investments are focused on improving the share of renewable energy from actual 23% to 32% by 2030, aiming to be one of the first EU’s States to reach carbon neutrality. France’s geography is very important when talking about renewables because its territory offers a wide range of opportunities: in the south coast and Corsica, the climate allows the building of solar power plants and the winds blowing in the Azure Coast give the chance to develop wind power plants as in the northern coasts of Normandy and Britany. The Alps give the chance to take advantage of hydroelectric power plants as well as central zones with artificial lakes.
When talking about renewable energy sources, it’s important to consider that they cannot assure 100% of output power generation all year round because they're strictly connected to climate conditions and environmental context of the area where they’re located. For this reason, a winning strategy is to match them with the most stable and carbon-free energy source the world knows: nuclear energy. A nuclear power plant is independent from climate conditions and can run full power all year round, assuring 100% of energy production output without interruptions (in normal operating conditions).
France’s target is to be one of the cleanest European countries and current data states that it’s on the right way, thanks to the perfect nuclear-renewables mix allowing Paris to be much less dependent on fossil fuels suppliers (like Russia), closer to net-zero emissions EU’s goal and build-up its own energy strategic security. For this reason, France could be considered a solid example in Europe, and by the European Commission, about how helpful the uranium-renewables mix is for the achievement of carbon net-zero emission by 2050.
REPowerEU, a possible nuclear-renewables mix?
RePowerEU represents the main strategy of the European Commission to rapidly cut the European reliance of Russian fossil fuels through the swift shift towards cleaner energy sources. Uniting the individual states through the concern over European energy security, the goal of RePowerEU is to establish a more resilient energy system. In these regards, the RePowerEU plan expands upon the Fit for 55 Agenda and includes the External Energy Strategy, a Solar Strategy, a Save Energy Communication, a Solar Rooftop Initiative and a Biomethane Action Plan (Kuzemko, 2022).
Within the framework of RePowerEU, hydrogen is meant to play a key role in European decarbonisation. The European initiative aims to achieve a target of 10 million tonnes of domestically produced renewable hydrogen by 2030, with an equal amount imported (Foro Nuclear, 2022. However, a heavy reliance on external imports of renewable hydrogen may not adequately mitigate Europe's energy import dependency. RePowerEU recognizes the importance of nuclear energy, however, compared to renewable energy and carbon-free hydrogen, it sees the importance of nuclear energy as secondary. In this regard, nuclear energy is regarded as a potential domestic resource that, alongside coal and gas, could contribute to boosting hydrogen production in Europe (Siddi, 2022). The limited integration of nuclear energy in the RePowerEU plan can be attributed to the contrasting views of nuclear energy amongst the member states. However, it is worth noting that the inclusion of nuclear power in the EU green taxonomy, alongside gas, signifies substantial support within certain European industrial and political circles for this form of energy and its associated technologies (Siddi, 2022).
Exploring the prospects of uranium for the European Union
The key inquiry surrounding the topic uranium and the European energy transition boosted by the REPowerEU plan revolved around the question: Could Uranium play a role in the EU's decarbonization plan and contribute to its energy security alongside renewables?
In order to discuss the role of uranium as the fuel for nuclear reactors for European decarbonization, it is insightful to look at the two biggest European countries- France and Germany, and their vastly different approaches to energy. While France generates most of its electricity from uranium, in 2022 Germany, despite its massive increase in renewable energy shares, the country still relied on fossil fuels for almost half of its power generation - lignite (20.1 % of power production), natural gas (13.3%), hard coal (11.3%) (Statista, 2022). In 2023, following the full phase out of nuclear power plants in Germany, there has been a notable increase in the proportion of electricity generated from fossil fuels, predominantly coal - the most environmentally harmful energy sources. It is important to acknowledge that France consumes approximately one-third less energy than Germany (Electricity Map). However, a substantial disparity exists in the carbon emissions between these two countries. Based on the comparison of per capita CO2 emissions from 2021, Germany exhibits significantly higher emissions per capita compared to France, with figures of 8.09 tons of CO2 per year for Germany and 4.74 tons for France (Our World in Data, 2021).
Further, it is crucial to acknowledge the relationship between economic growth and energy consumption, as highlighted by Hickel and Kallis (2020). In this context, as Europe strives to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, it is key to consider that energy demands are anticipated to increase due to ongoing economic expansion. Consequently, meeting the ambitious decarbonization targets will necessitate even greater energy resources compared to the present. In this regard, having a stable, low carbon, reliable energy source of energy, which nuclear energy represents, is essential. Moreover, despite the massive roll out of renewables, the recent data from IAEA (2021) suggests that in order to meet the net zero climate goal by 2050, nuclear energy must at least double.
As European energy independence is concerned, the EU relies heavily on imports to meet its oil and gas requirements, consequently, any efforts aimed at reducing the demand for fossil fuel imports will inevitably result in its increasing energy security and geopolitical energy stability. However, the diversification of energy imports to meet the current demands of the European energy market has generated significant debate surrounding new geopolitical dependencies and energy security concerns. It is acknowledged that all forms of energy entail some degree of dependency. The recently announced construction of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to import gas from the United States and Qatar has raised further concerns about the potential geopolitical vulnerabilities and dependencies on non-democratic nations (Siddi, 2022). Additionally, gas imports from Algeria and Azerbaijan face limitations due to gas availability constraints and geopolitical factors. At the same time, the expansion of renewable energy sources contributes to the growing demand for raw materials, thereby giving rise to new dependencies, particularly in China and African countries (IEA, 2021).
Given the multi-dimensional European energy systems and the current prevailing energy security crisis, it becomes increasingly important to ensure the greatest amount of energy independence possible. In this context, a crucial approach entails the persistent utilization of nuclear power plants. By doing so, Europe can enhance its resilience to potential energy supply disruptions, minimize vulnerabilities associated with external energy dependencies, and consolidate its position as a self-reliant energy market (Foro Nuclear, 2022).
To conclude, with the EU’s focus on reducing dependence on fossil fuel sources and building a resilient energy security, uranium and nuclear energy offer a viable solution to the issues of European decarbonization and energy security. However, considering the current stance of RePowerEU towards nuclear energy, with the emphasis placed predominantly on renewable energy rather than pursuing a nuclear-renewable mix, there is a need to reconsider the political and public view of nuclear energy.
According to every statement and consideration explained in the preceding parts, we are able to say that if the European Union wants to achieve its own energy strategic independence/security and reach the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The EU should not focus only and exclusively on renewable sources justified because of excessive dependence on external environmental factors such as climate and location. Instead, it should align them alongside nuclear power plants due to their resilience and reliability in energy output production with zero CO2 emissions during their life-cycle production. Additionally, as stated in previous paragraphs, the uranium supply chain has proved to be more reliable and stable than Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels exporters, with the last (but not least) advantage of getting very low percentages of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Germany absurd energy policy demonstrates that decommissioning nuclear power plants without a proper replacement plan for the old reactors, will result in an abnormous rise of CO2 emissions (c.a. 600 Mt total CO2 emissions in 2022 - IEA, Germany) due to reactivations of fossil sources power plants in order to sustain and supplement renewables power plants non-constant energy output.
Federico Scarpa (Junior Researcher G.E.O. Economics) and Karin Michalikova (Junior Researcher G.E.O. Environment)
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