Europe’s three leading economies are taking three radically different approaches to nuclear power, reflecting different national public priorities in a transition from fossil fuels, and showing the scale of government intervention in energy policy.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom are all global top 20 generators of nuclear power, by market share. France is number one worldwide, with nuclear reactors supplying 71% of generation last year, while the UK and Germany are 14th and 19th, at 21% and 12% respectively, according to data from the energy company BP.

But the three have significantly different goals for the technology going forwards, despite some consensus over critical considerations of cost and carbon emissions.

Nuclear power is very low carbon-emitting. Partly as a result, France has barely half the per capita carbon emissions of Germany, at 4.9 tonnes carbon dioxide (CO2) per person versus 9.3 tonnes. Britain is in the middle, at 6 tonnes (according to UN population and BP CO2 data for 2017).

But nuclear is also one of the most expensive sources of new generation. The UK government has contracted to buy electricity from a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C at a rate of £92.50 per megawatt hour (2012 prices) for 35 years. Long-term nuclear waste disposal liabilities will add to this cost, while there is some risk around the numbers: the 3.2 gigawatt (GW) Hinkley nuclear power plant will take at least nine years to build, and has already seen cost overruns.

By way of cost comparison, most renewable power is now unsubsidised in Britain, with the exception of offshore wind, where the latest power purchase contracts auctioned last year settled at £57.50 per MWh (2012 prices) for 15 years. The 2.3 GW wind farms would take five years to build, coming online in 2022/23.

Low carbon emissions and high new-build costs might be expected to support a strategy to extend the life of existing nuclear power plants as long as possible, while halting new-build programmes.

Existing, fully depreciated nuclear power plants, some built in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the 1974 oil shock, can be repurposed and run for as long as possible as a source of low-carbon, baseload generation to bridge the phaseout of high-carbon coal and lignite. The high costs of new nuclear, however, make the case for building cheaper renewable generation going forwards, backed up by more flexible technologies than nuclear, including hydro, gas, batteries, other storage, wider interconnection and demand-response.

Returning to the case of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, France has no firm plans to add further to an ageing nuclear fleet, beyond the construction of a reactor at Flamanville. But it is planning to extend the life of some nuclear power plants, to help it meet goals to reduce carbon emissions, while retiring others. As President Emmanuel Macron said at the end of 2017: “I don’t idolize nuclear energy at all. But I think you have to pick your battle. My priority in France, Europe and internationally is CO2 emissions and global warming. We’ll have to shut some nuclear plants. Maybe we’ll have to modernize others.”

Germany, meanwhile, is retiring its entire nuclear fleet by 2022, including power plants previously slated for closure in the 2030s, in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and domestic public opposition to nuclear power. Premature retirements may create difficulties for the country’s carbon emissions targets, if it plugs any short-term supply gap with its dirtiest, most carbon-emitting lignite power plants. Britain, meanwhile, is travelling entirely in the opposite direction, planning a 19-GW nuclear new-build programme unprecedented in the western world.

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