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France offers an alternative to the fuel currently produced in Russia and cooperation in building new reactors. "We want to involve Slovak companies in the supply chain for nuclear fuel and we are also communicating about a repository of the used-up waste," French Ambassador PASCAL LE DEUNFF says in an interview.

By Irena Jenčová,

After the Russian invasion which triggered the energy crisis in Europe, energy prices have risen. For France and other European countries this was an impulse to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy sources. According to Pascal le Deunff, the French ambassador in Slovakia, it was also a confirmation of the importance of nuclear energy, not only in France but also in other countries of the EU.

"The development of a fleet of nuclear power plants is an absolute necessity in order to achieve emission reduction targets. Nuclear energy also guarantees European energy independence," the ambassador told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Earlier this year, Paris established the so-called nuclear alliance. It brings together European countries that are pro-nuclear, including Slovakia. Its aim is to strengthen the role of nuclear energy in achieving Europe's climate and energy security goals and to influence current EU legislation in favour of nuclear energy.

Involving Slovak companies

According to the ambassador, France and Slovakia are "twins" in relation to nuclear energy. France's nuclear power sector is the largest in Europe and responsible for 70 percent of its electricity production. The position of nuclear power in Slovakia is similar. After the completion of the fourth unit of Mochovce, electricity from nuclear will cover up to 75 percent of Slovakia's consumption.

According to the ambassador, cooperation in this area is essential in relations between the two countries, as evidenced by the visit of the French Minister of Climate and Energy to the European Nuclear Forum in Bratislava on November 7th.

Following the Russian invasion, Slovak power plants are looking for an alternative to nuclear fuel from Russia for VVER 440 power plants. In August they signed a nuclear fuel supply contract with Westinghouse and in May a memorandum of cooperation with the French company Framatome. The latter was asked by European VVER operating companies, including Slovak Power Plants, to contribute to the development of a sovereign European fuel solution.

Nevertheless, France also sees an opportunity for Slovak companies in this area. "We are communicating with Slovak companies that could become part of the supply chain for the new nuclear fuel," ambassador points out.

Czech Republic is one step further

Slovakia and France are not the only countries planning to develop new nuclear sources. The current Czech government also sees the combination of renewable and nuclear energy as ideal for achieving climate goals, increasing energy security and self-sufficiency.

Last year, the energy company ČEZ launched a tender for the construction of a new reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant, aiming to increase nuclear energy production. Three companies which passed the Czech government's safety assessment – US Westinghouse, France's EDF and Korea's KHNP – are bidding for this lucrative project.

The investment in the new Dukovany reactor is estimated at around 160 billion Czech crowns (in 2020 prices) and is set to be the highest ever in the Czech Republic's modern history. The final cost will remain unknown until after the tender. The winning bidder should be selected by the end of 2024 and construction is expected to start in 2029. The test operation is then expected to start in 2036. Czech companies are also expected to participate in the construction of the reactor.

In addition to the conventional reactor, Czech Republic also wants to explore the possibility of small modular reactors. The semi-state company ČEZ has already dedicated a special area on the site of the Temelín nuclear power plant for this purpose, where the first small modular reactor could be built in the future.

Poland is playing a multi-pronged game

The country needs to replace the black coal it burns to generate electricity. The solution is seen in both large nuclear sources and modular reactors. Last year, the Polish government struck a deal with the US-based Westinghouse to build its first nuclear power plant. Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin also signed a memorandum on the construction of a nuclear unit with KHNP while visiting South Korea this year.

France also remains in the game. France's EDF was also planning to build another new nuclear power plant to maintain good relations. In total, the Poles want to build six nuclear units.

The Slovaks will probably be most interested in a new modular reactor to be built 50 kilometres from the Slovak border between Krakow and Katowice. Orlen Synthos Green Energy plans to build a nuclear power plant based on small modular reactors with an electrical output of up to 1 300 megawatts on the industrial area of the Synthos chemical plant. It could be a power plant with a capacity greater than the two new Mochovec units combined or the entire currently active nuclear power plant in Jaslovské Bohunice. The Polish have already sent information about these plans to the Ministry of Environment of the Slovak republic which is in charge of cross-border permitting processes.

Nuclear and renewable energy is not in competition

The cooperation with France should also concern the construction of new sources. The state-owned company Électricité de France – EDF, which manages French nuclear power plants, wants to cooperate with Slovakia on the development of the entire nuclear ecosystem. From the construction of new sources, whether conventional or small modular reactors, which EDF is developing, to the development of university courses focused on this sector.

According to the ambassador, nuclear development is not a one-size-fits-all path for every member state. Each member state chooses its own way to achieve carbon neutrality.

"France, together with other countries in the nuclear alliance, is trying to appeal to the European Commission to put renewables and nuclear on an equal footing, including the possibility of funding them from European sources. We are trying to ensure that the principle of technology neutrality in legislation is also applied to nuclear and that every low-carbon source is treated equally," the ambassador explained.

Asked by EURACTIV Slovakia whether the push for nuclear energy would not come at the expense of funding allocated to renewable energy, he said that to achieve Europe's emission reduction targets we need to develop both types of energy at the same time, "otherwise we will not manage climate change".

"It would be a real mistake to put the two types of energy at odds, they are complementary and we need to develop them both," he said. Every country is different and, unlike Germany, nuclear energy is accepted by more than 50 percent of the population in France.

Risks: Uranium supply, spent fuel storage and climate change

In 2021, Niger was the main supplier of uranium, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia, according to the European Atomic Energy Community's Atomic Energy Supply Agency. The military coup in Niger in July raised concerns about security of supply and Europe is also trying to phase out its dependence on uranium from Russia. The ambassador is not worried about an interruption in the supply of this element which is used to make nuclear fuel.

"Together with other EU countries we want to diversify uranium sources. The EU is also developing cooperation with Australia and Canada," he says.

Another potential trouble spot in the construction of a new source is the storage of spent nuclear fuel. There is currently not a single fully operational deep storage facility in Europe. France has three surface storage sites, yet only a deep storage site is currently in the advanced stage of development. It should accommodate all French-produced fuel.

As for cooperation with Slovakia on this issue, the ambassador said that "with Slovakia it is still at the stage of initial talks, not specific solutions".

Another risk in the use of nuclear energy is the ongoing climate change. It is causing droughts that are causing a drop in water’s levels in the river which is used to cool the reactors. But there is also the problem of the rising temperature of rivers, lakes and seas, because they are no longer able to fulfil their cooling function. But climate change isn’t challenging only the nuclear energy, the ambassador believes.

"It's a problem for all energy sources – there will be less wind, less rainfall for hydroelectric power, and energy consumption is going up as a result of the heatwave. These are areas where scientists need to come together and find solutions to store energy," he concludes.

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