General information about nuclear energy 



Source : The following briefing notes were written to provide background information about nuclear power in Europe for journalists covering ENC 2002.

They deal with four separate aspects of nuclear electricity generation:

  1. Economics
  2. Environment
  3. Safety
  4. Waste Management.

There are strong economic and environmental arguments for building more nuclear power plants in Europe and other regions of the world.

There are more than 140 power reactors in the European Union, producing around 35% of all the Community’s electricity. Nuclear is the EU’s largest single energy source for power generation, ahead of coal at 29% and gas at 15%.

The power plants operate safely and reliably, producing large amounts of electricity at competitive prices. They are environmentally friendly, as they emit no greenhouse or acid rain gases and their waste is safely managed.

The nuclear industry thereby makes a valuable contribution towards achieving Europe's economic, energy supply and environmental objectives.

The nuclear energy option should be kept open and nuclear expertise should be retained, in order to:



Each country needs an appropriate energy strategy, reflecting its natural resources and its energy needs. Nuclear energy enables countries to:

With greater reliance on nuclear energy, countries are less likely to be seriously affected by fossil fuel shortages and sudden rises in fossil fuel prices.

Any future decline in nuclear’s contribution to EU energy supply will have serious implications for the region’s economy and environment. Phase-out policies have been pursued by certain West European coalition governments for reasons that are purely political and ideological. The political decisions involved have not been based on safety, environmental or economic arguments, and have been out of line with public opinion, according to poll results.

For the generation of bulk electricity, nuclear remains the only non-fossil energy source capable of expansion within Europe in the foreseeable future. The potential for expanding large-scale hydro is extremely limited, and nuclear fusion is still a long way off.

Wind farms and solar can play a supporting role, but the amount of power these sources can provide is extremely low compared to nuclear. They are also dependent on changeable factors, such as wind strength and sunshine. This makes them unsuitable for baseload generation, the power needed round-the-clock, day and night. Nuclear power plants, meanwhile, are an excellent source of baseload power.

The earth’s fossil resources are finite and should be preserved as much as possible, as they have important industrial uses other than power generation. Europe is heavily dependent on the Middle East and Russia for its oil and gas supplies, and political instability in certain regions could lead, at any time, to supply shortages and price rises.

On the other hand, the uranium used in nuclear fuel is available from various countries with a long history of political stability, including Australia and Canada. This has a stabilising effect on uranium prices and supply. Any rise in uranium prices would have only a minor impact on the cost of a nuclear kilowatt-hour, as fuel makes up a comparatively small part of the total cost of producing nuclear electricity. Power plants that burn fossil fuels are more fuel-intensive; producers and consumers therefore face a much greater risk of increased costs due to higher fuel prices.

Many existing nuclear power plants have already been paid for. Their operating costs are therefore low, and the electricity produced is among the cheapest in comparison with other sources. Cost projections show that new power reactors will also be competitive, even assuming low gas prices and heavy subsidies for wind power.

Cost comparison: nuclear, gas and wind power in the EU



Cost in cents per kWh


Nuclear plants (fully amortised)


1.2 - 1.6


New nuclear plants


2.4 - 3.01


Gas (low fuel price level)


2.5 - 2.7





- Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland, May 2001; University of Stuttgart, Germany, 2001; Ampere Commission, Belgium, October 2000 ; Hypotheses - depreciation: 30-40 years; plant utilisation: 7,500 h/a; discount rate: 5%.
- Danish Wind Industry Association, September 2000 ; Hypotheses - project lifetime: 20 years; discount rate: 5%.



More than 2 billion people world-wide have no access to electricity. This figure represents about one-third of the world’s population.

World energy demand will continue to grow as populations increase and countries undergo industrial development and economic expansion.

To meet these increasing demands, and to improve living standards for future generations, large increases in electricity generation will be necessary. Such increases must be achieved in a sustainable way that has the lowest possible environmental impact.

However, nuclear may not be an ideal energy option in every part of the world, as certain regions have no power transmission network. In addition, investment in nuclear may not be justified in areas where electricity demand is low.

Nuclear power plants generate about 17% of the world’s electricity and thereby avoid each year the release of some 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 world-wide.

In Europe alone, climate-friendly nuclear electricity saves the emission of about 500 million tonnes of CO2 a year. To make an equivalent saving by reducing car use, the amount of motoring done in the EU would have to drop by 75%.

CO2 emissions can be further avoided by building new power reactors, upgrading existing nuclear plants to increase output and by extending plant operating lifetimes.

All forms of energy, including nuclear, will be needed in the ongoing quest for sustainable development. Specific options aimed at long-term solutions should not be excluded because of short-term political pressures.

Many of Europe’s nuclear plants will reach retirement age in the next 20 years. Atmospheric pollution and CO2 emissions will surge, if the reactors are replaced by power plants that burn fossil fuels.

No single energy source can be ‘sustainable’ by itself. However, nuclear can contribute to creating a sustainable energy system and thereby to sustainable development.

The nuclear industry, with an annual turnover of 45 billion euro, provides over 400,000 highly skilled jobs. The plants operated by the industry have a total capital value of about 350 billion euro.

In Europe, many nuclear power plants have already been paid for. Their operating costs are low, and the electricity they produce is among the cheapest in comparison with other sources.

The nuclear industry therefore makes a valuable contribution towards achieving Western Europe's economic, energy supply and environmental objectives.



Installing solar cells to replace a nuclear power plant (cost 2.56 billion Euros) would require an investment of around 92 billion Euros. The cells involved would cover 150 square kilometres, a surface equivalent to the whole of the Brussels urban area within the city's ring road. Installation of solar cells is 36 times more expensive than nuclear energy

Installing solar cells to replace a weather-independent nuclear power plant in Germany (cost 5 billion DM) would require an investment of around 180 billion DM. The cells involved would require a surface area of 150 square kilometres. One nuclear power plant = 3 strips of 100 meter wide of solar panels all along the mediteranean coast of France (500 km long).

If you replaced all the EU’s nuclear plants with wind turbines, they would cover an area of 32,000 square kilometres. Here, the equivalent would be a ten kilometre-wide coastal area stretching from the northernmost point in Denmark, right around France, to the north-west tip of Spain.

If you replaced all the EU’s nuclear plants with wind turbines, they would cover an area of 32 000 square kilometres.

One nuclear power plant = 3 strips of giant wind mills almost 100 meters wide, separated from each other by 100 meters of empty space for bird passage, all along the Atlantic, North sea and Mediteranean coasts of France (1 600 km long).



The nuclear industry in Europe is strictly regulated and enjoys an excellent safety record &emdash; something the plant owners and operators are determined to maintain. Safety is the industry's top priority.

This safety record has been achieved by high standards applied to the design, maintenance, operation of nuclear installations &emdash; power stations, nuclear fuel manufacturing and reprocessing plants and installations for the processing and storage of radioactive waste. Research and development work has also played an important role in this area.





Techniques are already in use for the safe decommissioning of nuclear facilities and the restoration of nuclear sites.

Actual decommissioning costs are turning out to be lower than originally predicted, thanks to technological advances and to the accumulation and sharing of technical know-how and data.

The European nuclear industry includes companies that are world leaders in the huge global market for plant decommissioning and site restoration.


EU Enlargement

Nuclear safety is of fundamental importance world-wide, but concerns about it should not be stimulated without foundation, nor used in a purely political context to prevent or delay the accession of countries wishing to join the European Union.

The current principles covering the accession issue date back to a time when the 1986 Chernobyl accident was still fresh in people's minds. New guidelines are needed to take account of the considerable progress made in improving the safety of Russian-design reactors. A great deal of Western assistance has gone into achieving these improvements.

Discussions about the use of nuclear power in the accession states should focus primarily on the current status of safety at the plants concerned. At the same time, policy-makers should fully recognise the right of sovereign nations to determine their own energy options.


Radioactive Waste Management

The amount of radioactive waste generated annually by nuclear power plants is small in comparison with the total volume of waste produced by modern industrialised society.

Nuclear plant operators set aside part of the cost per kilowatt-hour to finance not only plant decommissioning but also the safe management and isolation of the industry’s waste. Within the power generation sector as a whole, the nuclear energy industry is unique in this respect.

Proven technologies and strict regulations exist for managing radioactive wastes in ways that are safe, economical and environmentally sound. Considerable experience exists with these technologies in many countries. Radioactive waste can be stored safely in a monitored and retrievable form for a very long time.

Universally, the overriding objective is to manage the waste in such as way as to protect human health and the environment and to limit any burden on future generations. Waste is processed into a solid form and is encased in special containers, before being placed in a facility on or near the surface or below ground. Natural and engineered barriers are used to isolate the waste from the biosphere.

World-wide there are many disposal concepts for spent nuclear fuel and for the high-level radioactive waste left over after the reprocessing (recycling) of spent nuclear fuel. So far, no great urgency has been necessary because of the safety of existing interim storage facilities that store this material on an interim basis. Disposal deep underground is emerging internationally as a preferred option.

The basic technology and financing mechanisms are already in place for the construction of deep underground repositories. Building up political consensus and public acceptance should now be the top priority, in order to achieve further progress in this area. Significant progress is already being made in Finland, Sweden and the US.

A majority of Europeans believe the present generation should take responsibility for its radioactive waste, according to the results of an EU-wide poll published in 2002 by the European Commission.* The present generation has derived enormous benefits from nuclear technology, and is duty bound to permanently resolve this important environmental issue.


When is waste not waste?

Nuclear plant operators set aside part of the cost per kilowatt-hour to finance not only plant decommissioning but also the proper management of the industry’s waste. The operators of fossil fuel-burning power plants make no such provision for waste. Generally, the waste products from those power stations are released into the environment.



Techniques are already in use for the safe decommissioning of nuclear facilities and the clean-up of nuclear sites.

Decommissioning costs are now much lower than originally predicted, thanks to advances in technology, and expertise in the field is increasing.

The European nuclear industry includes companies that are world leaders in the huge global market for decommissioning and site restoration. When nuclear fuel is removed from a reactor after being used, it can follow one of two distinct routes. Government policy may dictate that it should be disposed of. In this case, it is considered as waste. Alternatively, the power company involved may be in a position to have the spent fuel reprocessed. In this case, it is considered a valuable energy resource destined for recycling.

Reprocessing, carried out by two major companies, BNFL in the UK, and Cogema in France, results in the recovery of 97% of the reusable material inside the spent fuel. This is made up of uranium and plutonium, and both can be used in the production of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. The remaining 3% is highly radioactive waste which is immobilised in glass &emdash; a process called vitrification &emdash; and encased in special containers for long-term storage in purpose-built facilities. At a later stage, the vitrified waste can be disposed of in deep underground repositories, in the same way as spent fuel that has not been reprocessed.


  • * Eurobarometer 56.2, ‘Europeans and Radioactive Waste’, 19 April 2002