Can Europe's atomic reactors bridge the gap to an emissions-free future?

PARIS - Shaken by the loss of Russian natural gas since the invasion of Ukraine, European countries are questioning whether they can extend the lives of their ageing nuclear reactors to maintain the supply of affordable, carbon-free electricity — but national regulators, companies and governments disagree on how long the atomic plants can be safely kept running.

Europe avoided large-scale blackouts last winter despite losing its largest supplier of natural gas, but industry is still grappling with high electricity prices and concerns about supply.

Given warnings from the International Energy Agency that the coming winters will be particularly at risk from a global gas shortage, governments have turned their attention to another major energy source that would exacerbate the problem if it too is disrupted: Europe’s ageing fleet of nuclear power plants.

Nuclear accounts for nearly 10% of energy consumed in the European Union, with transport, industry, heating and cooling traditionally relying on coal, oil and natural gas.

Historically nuclear has provided about a quarter of EU electricity and 15% of British power.

Taken together, the UK and EU have 109 nuclear reactors running, most of which were built in the 1970s and 1980s and were commissioned to last about 30 years.

That means 95 of those reactors — nearly 90% of the fleet — have passed or are nearing the end of their original lifespan, igniting debates over how long they can safely continue to be granted operating extensions.

Regulations differ across borders, but life extension discussions are usually a once-a-decade affair involving physical inspections, cost/benefit estimates for replacing major worn-out parts, legislative amendments, and approval from the national nuclear safety authority.


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