Beyond electricity: exploring the versatility of nuclear applications

Dinner debate in Strasbourg

Chaired by Jerzy Buzek MEP, President of the EEF
Yves Desbazeille, Director General, nucleareurope
Jan Milčák, Reactors Operation Director, ČEZ Group
Danijel Levičar, COO, GenEnergija, Member of nucleareurope
Speaker from the European Commission

Jerzy Buzek MEP, President of the EEF opened the discussion by underpinning the potential of nuclear power in achieving EU’s carbon neutrality in 2050. He underlined how nuclear energy could represent a significant asset if combined with renewable energy sources. He also emphasised the importance of nuclear research in various scientific areas such as medicine.

Yves Desbazeille, Director General, nucleareurope stressed that the power sector is the first one that should be fully decarbonized in Europe, but that this goal is hard to achieve, as EU electricity consumption will have to be multiplied by three. Mr Desbazeille reminded that nuclear is not only about electricity production, but has many other applications: medicine, space, food. Therefore, he considered that it is practically impossible to eliminate nuclear. He also highlighted the potential benefits in terms of GDP growth and jobs, which would grow to 1.3 million if the Nuclear Alliance target of deploying 150 GW of nuclear by 2050 was achieved. He concluded by emphasizing the need to have a technology neutral approach in the Net Zero Industry Act, to be fully able to support the energy transition and to adequately respond to the US Inflation Reduction Act.

Jan Milčák, Reactors Operation Director, Research Centre Rez (CEZ Group) explained the history of nuclear power and focused on nuclear research reactors, specifically. Out of the 36 research reactors in the EU, most of them are in operation, but some are in the extendeded shutdown phase or started to be decomissioned. Mr Milčák emphasized that these reactors mainly use the fission process to produce neutrons which can have different applications: material irradiation, isotopes production, basic research, reactors physics, geochronology, activation and analysis. Indeed, research reactors can be multi-purpose. With respect to facilities dedicated to isotopes production, he clarified that they do not only have technical purposes, but also medical ones. They are increasingly used in cancer screening, testing, diagnosis and treatment. Nevertheless, nuclear research faces considerable challenges in meeting safety requirements, and in financing and budgeting.

Danijel Levičar, COO, GenEnergija, Member of nucleareurope illustrated the Slovenian case: the smallest state in the world with a developed nuclear program and with two operating reactors – one for research and the other for power generation (jointly owned by Slovenia and Croatia). He specified that the country considers the complementarity between nuclear and renewable energy as the answer to climate neutrality and energy independence. This coexistence has enabled the Slovenian government to keep electricity prices for end-consumers quite low throughout the energy crisis, around 100 euro/MWh. He underlined that, by relying on nuclear energy, Slovenia has witnessed reliability of supply, reduction in CO2 emissions, and good economic impacts. For these reasons, Slovenia has had an increase in public support, including in the age group 18-24 that in the past was the most reluctant one.

Jan Panek, Director for Nuclear Energy, Safety & ITER, DG ENER, European Commission explained that the European Commission is neutral with respect to nuclear power, leaving the full freedom of choice to the Member States. The Commission’s role is only to ensure that the Member States comply with obligations under EU legislation, in particular with respect to safety, sustainability and environmental impacts. Member States could exploit the potential of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the decarbonisation of hard-to-abate sectors. In this respect, he underlined the importance of ensuring that the EU is well positioned to provide physical components and skills for such technologies and suggested the development of a common European approach for the exchange of information and know-how. As for nuclear research, Mr Panek emphasized that the European Commission fully supports it, as shown by the SAMIRA initiative launched in 2021, because it is important to have in Europe sources of isotopes available for safe and widely accessible medical treatment.

The Q&A session with the participants was an opportunity to hear all points of views and exchange on a wide variety of topics including the success of the Slovenian experience, technological neutrality in EU legislation, the obstacles in EU legislation and how to promote a more favourable environment for investments in nuclear, the length of nuclear plants construction processes, the dependency on Russian supplies of uranium and its availability in Europe, nuclear waste and the relationship between nuclear fission and fusion.