The steep increase in the price of oil after the 1973 oil crisis caused chaos in the global economy and panic among decision-makers in many countries: a reliable and cheap source of energy suddenly became a huge risk.
France and Sweden, among others, decided to rely on nuclear power, since it is reliable, affordable and can be built quickly. In the wake of the oil crisis, France built dozens of new reactors. The same happened in Sweden as well, with the construction of the Oskarshamn, Forsmark and Ringhals power plants.
The reliable availability of energy became the priority, and climate change was not among the top concerns in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, climate history was made almost unnoticed: emissions from energy production decreased while the amount of energy produced increased. Sweden and France managed to build additional new, low-carbon energy production per capita faster than any other country before or since, at least for the time being.
The need for new capacity is enormous
Nuclear power plants are built to last for decades. Hanhikivi 1 will be licensed for 60 years, but in theory, a well-maintained plant can remain in service for even longer. In Europe, the oldest plants are already reaching the end of their life cycles, and they are being closed at an accelerating rate. The new construction projects currently in progress are not enough to make up for the capacity being decommissioned.
The WNA has prepared the Harmony program: the global nuclear industry's vision for the future of electricity. It is based on the energy scenario from the International Energy Agency, which aims to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2 °C.
According to the Harmony program, 25 percent of the world’s electricity needs to be produced by means of nuclear power in 30 years. To reach that goal, the additional nuclear power capacity needed in the world is 1,000 gigawatts by 2050. In Finland, nuclear power production will be at its peak once Hanhikivi 1 is completed, with Finland’s nuclear power capacity then reaching 5.5 gigawatts.
The need for new capacity is enormous, since aging plants must be replaced with new ones. In addition, the use of fossil fuels must end, since the global need for energy is growing simply due to population growth.
A quarter of the energy production in Europe
Electricity production with nuclear power in the EU countries reached an all-time high in 2004, when production amounted to 1,008,400 gigawatt hours (1,008 terawatt hours). Since then, the amount has decreased, and in 2016, nuclear power only amounted to 840 terawatt hours in electricity production. The decrease is largely due to the premature closure of power plants.
In 2016, nuclear power plants in 14 different countries accounted for a quarter of electricity production in the entire Europe. The WNA’s goal has thus been reached in Europe, but unless new plants are built to replace the ones being decommissioned, the situation will continue to weaken.
In addition to Finland, new construction projects are underway or planned in France, Slovakia, Great Britain, Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.
Minna Forsström from Fennovoima, Kirill Komarov from Rosatom, and Jeremy Gordon from the World Nuclear Association met on a discussion panel about the Harmony program in Sochi, Russia. According to Harmony’s vision, a quarter of the world’s electricity should be produced with nuclear power.
Zero-emission sources of energy for the climate
What should be done, then? The WNA lists three areas that need to change in order to boost the construction of nuclear power plants and, subsequently, the battle against climate change. First, a level playing field should be established in the energy markets, and all low-carbon technologies should be given equal opportunities.
Secondly, harmonized regulatory processes should be ensured between different countries, since a lack of common regulations slows down the design and construction of power plants.
Thirdly, the industry itself should highlight the benefits of nuclear power – which are numerous – instead of focusing on technology, safety and security. The industry itself needs to appreciate its products before the rest of the world can do the same.
Differences in attitudes between the Nordic countries
In Finland, nuclear power is exceptionally popular compared to many other countries in Europe. In a recent survey by Finnish Energy, support for nuclear power had returned to the figures preceding the accident in Fukushima.
However, it is not necessary to travel far to encounter completely different attitudes. The environmental protection tax levied on nuclear power in Sweden was not abolished until 2017, when the state-owned energy company Vattenfall threatened to close power plants if the tax remained in effect.
The negative attitude of the Swedes towards their central source of electricity is difficult to understand when viewing the country from the climate perspective. Thanks to nuclear power, electricity production in Sweden has been among the cleanest in Europe for decades, and Sweden exports electricity to other countries, such as Finland.
The examples of Sweden and France show that large-scale, rapid construction of nuclear power capacity is possible. They are also unparalleled examples of how Western countries have succeeded in reducing emissions.
Finnish engineering expertise exported to China
Signs of the accelerating rate of construction that the WNA has hoped for are already visible in China, where the health hazards caused by poor air quality have been acknowledged. In continental China, there are currently 39 nuclear reactors in operation and 20 under construction, and more are being planned.
The Tianwan 1 & 2 nuclear power plants were built in China in approximately seven years. Finnish engineering expertise was also used in designing them. The planned Tianwan 7 & 8 plant units are similar VVER-1200 reactors as will be built on the Hanhikivi peninsula.
The construction rate called for by the Harmony program may feel high – and indeed it is. However, history has shown that rapidly increasing emission-free energy production is possible. From the perspective of preventing climate change, however, the clock is ticking.
No national project has been able to increase the rate of building renewable energy in the same way the increase has been achieved with nuclear power. Mitigating climate change will require a much faster rate. A combination of nuclear power and renewable power can help us meet the climate objectives.
Atomexpo is one of the main annual events in the nuclear power industry. In 2018, the event celebrated its tenth anniversary in the Olympic city of Sochi. Fennovoima was also one of the exhibitors at the event.