Interview: FORATOM’s Director General on private nuclear power plants, green hydrogen and problems of Ukraine

Nuclear energy is considered one of the energy sources that the world needs to achieve its green goals. However, the risk of recurring major accidents at NPPs is forcing many countries to fight against nuclear to be included in the list of sources to invest in.

Against this backdrop, Ukraine is forced to resolve difficult issues on the construction of new power units to be able to provide itself with electricity in a few decades.

Should the world wait for the Nuclear Renaissance, will nuclear power plants participate in the production of green hydrogen, will private companies get the right to operate nuclear power plants, Yves Desbazeille, the Director General of the European Atomic Forum (FORATOM), told in an interview for Kosatka.Media.

  • On December 8, the Minister of Energy of Ukraine Herman Halushchenko accused the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine of obstructing the activities of Energoatom, and refusing to approve the draft law on the siting (locating) of power units 3 and 4 at KhNPP. Ukrainian energy specialists call it an example of unprecedented pressure on the independent regulator. Do you know about this situation and what do you think of it?

To put it simply, the industry does not tend to interfere or comment too much on the decisions of the regulators, I guess it is the same in Ukraine because there are strong views that regulators should be and remain as independent as possible.

As for the Khmelnytskyi NPP, I do not possess information on this particular issue.

If the question is whether one should resume some construction that has been stopped for a while it depends on the way things are being handled, depends on whether the civil works have been properly carried out and protected against weather conditions. There are examples of projects finished after a long time of being started. For example, in Slovakia and the US. It really depends on the context.

  • Today, nuclear power is gaining popularity again. It is often referred to as the ‘new green energy’. How do you assess the situation across the sector?

The situation in Europe is relatively diverse. You are probably aware that some countries like Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg are opposed to nuclear energy and put every effort to resist it in the EU institutional debates.

However, many countries see nuclear power as part of the solution to address climate change. The list includes France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and many others. There is also a statement signed by twelve countries that joined the pro-nuclear front on taxonomy.

It means that nearly half of the member states do support nuclear power. Some do not have strong views and some oppose nuclear energy strongly. That's basically the current picture.

  • How about integrating nuclear power into the green finance taxonomy, do you think it will be included in the classification or not?

Yes, we believe that nuclear will be included in some way within the taxonomy. However, we remain concerned that the criteria that are going to be imposed on nuclear power plants will be so stringent that it is going to be difficult for a lot of NPPs to achieve that level of compliance.

  • Five EU countries have formed an anti-nuclear alliance at COP26: Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, and Portugal. Austria is even ready to litigate if nuclear power is integrated into the green finance taxonomy. How important is the voice of these countries within the EU?

They are important because of Germany. The others are smaller countries with less power, yet Germany is the biggest economy in Europe, the most populated country, it has very strong influence and it could indeed create obstacles to nuclear power.

  • Verivox’s study shows that 31% of people in Germany would prefer cheaper nuclear energy. This is 20% more compared to the figures of 2018. Is the Nuclear Renaissance possible in Germany?

Personally, I don’t think so. I’m not saying that Germany will never invest in nuclear power again. But it will take a long time simply because of politicians. They have very strong views, they do believe nuclear power should never be discussed again, should never be considered again. And with the current coalition that gathers greens and socialists and liberals, there is no chance for the Nuclear Renaissance.

  •  Do you think the world, bearing in mind the energy crisis, can reconsider its views in favour of nuclear energy?

So, first of all, extremely high spot prices for gas and electricity affect countries differently. For instance, North America does not experience such a situation since they have shale gas. They do not face the same prices.

Asia, and particularly China, is suffering. But where the prices are really gone over the top is in Europe. So, Europe today is the most impacted economy worldwide, which can force the EU to reconsider its views on nuclear energy.

Many conversations are saying it would be a good idea to keep another source of energy that would be decarbonized and that would allow limiting dependence on gas for instance coming from Russia because it’s one of the issues. So, to respond simply to the question – yes, it is possible.

  • Some plans on using nuclear energy to produce green hydrogen are being sounded in Ukraine. How widespread could it be used? How is it viewed by Europe and the world?

It is a topic of high agenda everywhere, not only in Ukraine but also in other countries in Europe. We will see what exactly the future of hydrogen could be.

We at FORATOM believe there will be no decarbonized hydrogen produced at a reasonable cost without nuclear power. The reason is that the electrolysers needed to produce hydrogen have to run for a considerable part of the year to be amortized. It will be very difficult to achieve this using solar and wind farms only.

The question is what exactly the needs in terms of hydrogen are.

There are plenty of different views on that. I’m convinced that hydrogen has to be limited to some very specific application.

Today hydrogen is mainly used as feedstock for chemical industries in particular. There is some potential to use it in transport in fuel cells. This could make sense because with hydrogen you can have a much higher range capacity than you have with batteries.

However, for example, the idea of burning hydrogen in gas heaters instead of gas makes no sense.

The issue, though, is totally debated, the question is how much hydrogen we need, which is unclear.

  • The development of the nuclear sector slowed down after the Fukushima disaster. How has the sector changed over the 10-year period?

After the Fukushima accident, there was an initiative which consisted in doing some stress tests, taken by all the safety authorities across Europe and I think including Ukraine, by the way. Those stress tests consisted in assessing the resilience of the power units to some unforeseen situations like the one Fukushima plant faced.

Many regulators obliged nuclear power plants to upgrade safety systems, for example, to equip them with additional diesel generators. In my opinion, this is being done successfully. Today we are confident that nuclear reactors in Europe will be able to withstand such a difficult situation like at Fukushima.

  • How close to practical implementation is the SMR technology? Will private companies be able to become operators of nuclear power plants that generate electricity using a small modular reactor? Or is the nuclear industry too conservative to let anyone other than the states have such a right?

First of all, it depends on SMR designs; some of them are a little bit ahead of others. The new technology in France, for example, could be used no earlier than 2028. We also need a series of SMRs.

Would private investors be capable of investing? The answer is yes. Certainly, yes because it should be way cheaper than large reactors, at least per unit. So, it is much more affordable, in the range of €1-2 billion per reactor maximum.

Could they be operators? I would say yes, it’s doable but would they be able to become certified operators? And then this question goes back to the safety regulators, would they accept that some certified operators are independent private companies? Those are key questions that will have to be clarified in the years to come with regulators and the industry and that in a way will make this technology successful…or not.

Private operators will also have to be able to fulfil some legal constraints that are usually very stringent but I don’t see any strong views against this.


Tags: NPP, EU, renewables, hydrogen, hydrogen technologies, nuclear power plant, Europe

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