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Can Nuclear Generation Help Reduce European Reliance on Russian Gas?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Energy Agency and the European Commission have come up with plans to rapidly reduce the European Union’s imports of Russian natural gas. While the International Energy Agency anticipates that EU nuclear generation could increase by 20 terawatt hours (TWh) (or 2.7 percent) in 2022, the European Commission only mentions nuclear as a potential source of hydrogen.

In this piece, Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a global research scholar with the Center on Global Energy Policy, answers questions about how nuclear power can help reduce the EU’s gas demand.

Can nuclear generation help reduce gas demand in Europe in the near term?

Nuclear represents about 25 percent of the EU’s electricity generation. In 2020, nuclear generation amounted to 688 TWh and is estimated to have recovered to around 735 TWh in 2021. However, nuclear generation is expected to drop by an estimated 90 TWh in 2022, and by another 20 TWh in 2023. Lower supplies of electricity from nuclear generation are generally made up for with higher consumption of natural gas.

Falling nuclear production in Europe can be attributed to two factors. The first is that French is down from 360 TWh in 2021; electric utility EDF expects French nuclear generation to range between 295 and 315 TWh in 2022, and between 300 and 330 TWh in 2023. Taking the average of these assessments, this will reduce French generation by about 60 TWh in 2022 and 50 TWh in 2023 against 2021 levels. The lower generation forecasts take into account that a number of French nuclear reactors will be closed for their 10-year inspection or for controls due to suspicions of corrosion.

The second reason is the retirement of around 4 GW of nuclear capacity in Germany in the wake of a decision made after the Fukushima Daiichi accident of 2011. These plants generated about 30 TWh in 2020. Another 6 GW is due to be decommissioned by early 2023. The effects will be mostly felt from 2023 onward. The start of nuclear power plants in Finland, France, and Slovakia over 2022–23 will only partly counterbalance this decline.

It is uncertain that more nuclear generation can come from other operating plants. Most plants outside of France (around 39 GW) operate at high rates (>90 percent), including 25 GW operating at above 96 percent. In contrast, the load factors in France have been low (about 70 percent).

Are there actions that policy makers could take to increase nuclear power and reduce Europe’s dependence on gas?

There are two actions that policy makers could take for nuclear to help reduce gas consumption:

  • Postpone the decommissioning of the 6 GW of nuclear capacity in Germany and Belgium due to be retired by early 2023. This may be challenging, as these plants will need fuel and a qualified workforce to operate the plants, but given that they are still operating, it could be possible to reverse the process if the decision is made soon enough. This action would not significantly change the situation in 2022 but will have an impact on next winter and add close to 50 TWh in 2023, mostly from Germany and Belgium.
  • Restart the 4 GW recently decommissioned in Germany. This can be technically challenging and costly, and could face local opposition. To the extent regulatory and political barriers are removed, action needs to be taken quickly. As time passes, it becomes harder to restart plants, as they will need a workforce and fuel, which has to be ordered well in advance specifically for each reactor. However, such a process could add another 30 TWh by 2023. How much can be added in 2022 depends on the speed of the process.

French nuclear generation could prove the most important factor for adding to EU nuclear power in the near and long term. If EDF were able to increase its power generation back to 2021 levels quickly, that could add 10 TWh in 2022 (the upper range of EDF’s forecasts) and 50 TWh in 2023. Given that France has typically low load factors, there is an upside to going back to above 400 TWh—the levels reached in the mid-2010s—but this may be limited by the number of 10-year inspections happening over the coming years.

If these three options are achieved, Europe’s nuclear generation would reach almost 660 TWh in 2022 and 760 TWh in 2023, compared to 735 TWh in 2021. Looking at 2030, an additional 14 GW out of the 100 GW operating in 2021 are expected to be retired. A reassessment of nuclear power plants could be done to determine which plants could safely be operated longer. Additionally, European countries willing to build nuclear capacity could accelerate their plans, as these plants typically take a decade to build. If approved by the European Council and the Parliament, the new EU taxonomy, which includes nuclear as a sustainable energy activity, could help to support financing.

This post was originally published by Columbia Climate School’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Read more of their coverage of the crisis in Ukraine and how it could affect energy markets, global security, and the energy transition. 

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Juri Hertel
Juri Hertel
2 years ago

Correction: policy makers can’t stop the planned closures of Belgian,German,British atom power plants, the legal frames does not allow for this unless a state of emergency is declared.And we know how atom power plants are handled during a state of emergency:

Europe’s atom power plants are knackered,French EdF reports for yesterday(16.3.2022) 28 reactors of former 58 reactors being down:
EdF owns as well the reactors in the UK and has closed 5 for good in the last 18 month.
These closures have driven up the energy prices all over Europe, not the war:

French EdF is a state monopoly and has zero interests in the energy transition since subsidies are rolling in on demand.
Just the opposite, the mafiosis ( ) make a great living from the sale of gas and coal in a monopoly esp. with the prices going up:

Dr. Shri Prakash
Dr. Shri Prakash
2 years ago

The real answer to a stable European security structure lies in giving Russia a transparent role in it rather than encouraging sub- nationalism as in Ukraine take up hostile politics and policies opposed to Russians and Russia. If Europe will not buy Russian oil and gas the rest of the World including the biggest importers China and India will. This means that Russia will have enough finances to sustain itself as a World class military Power well able to defend Russia and Russians. Russia is already probably the World’s leading Space Power and this is to be seen in the extremely advanced missile technologies on display jn its war with Ukraine. What is more Russia is a strategic state well organized to fight wars for long periods if necesssary. It’s actions in Ukraine are fully authorized by the whole Russian Parliament not just Vladimir Putin. The Russian Nation wants to feel secure and safe. This is what the Western governments should be working for. Any other strategy or goals will only produce an insecure World system not in anyone’s real interests. The West should tell Zelensky to settle with Russia through a policy of give and take.