Speech by President von der Leyen at the Nuclear Energy Summit

“Check against delivery”

Dear Prime Minister De Croo, dear Alexander,

Your Excellencies,

Director General Grossi,

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Thank you for the opportunity to address this Summit meeting. As everyone is aware, there are different views across the European Union on nuclear power. But I am here because I believe that, in countries that are open to the technology, nuclear technologies can play an important role in clean energy transitions. I can also see that, after the global energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries are giving a fresh look to the potential role that nuclear might play. Why is this? To help reach our climate goals: Let us not forget that nuclear power worldwide is the second-largest source of low emission electricity after hydropower. To safeguard our energy security, countries look to reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels. And to ensure their competitiveness nuclear power can provide a reliable anchor for electricity prices.

This renewed interest comes at a pivotal moment. Most pathways to net zero keep a place open for nuclear power. In the IEA’s 2050 scenario, e.g. nuclear capacity more than doubles by 2050 while renewables take on most of the work of decarbonising global electricity supply. Our European Commission projections also show that renewable energy sources in majority, are complemented by nuclear energy, and will be the backbone of the EU power production by 2050.

However, this future for nuclear technologies is hardly assured. The reality today, in most markets, is a reality of a slow but steady decline in market share. For the world as a whole, nuclear currently accounts for 9% of the global electricity mix. But in 1988 nuclear power reached an 18% share, that is double of today. The same story is visible within the European Union. Nuclear power is still the largest single source of electricity generation in the EU with a 22% share. But that share is substantially below the levels reached in the 1990’s, when nuclear power generated one-third of Europe’s electricity. What would it take for nuclear to make a substantial contribution to our climate-neutrality objective? I see a few key tasks ahead. The main one is to secure new investments. The IAEA analysis tells us that investments need to accelerate already this decade and reach new heights in the 2030s to meet the Paris Agreement target. That requires support from governments, to ensure that financing is available and that nuclear’s contribution to electricity security is properly valued and remunerated.

Secondly, it means discipline from the nuclear power industry. The future of nuclear depends on the industry’s ability to deliver on time and on budget. Far too often the realisation of nuclear power plants has resulted in significant additional costs and overruns.

A third task is to look for new opportunities to support the clean transitions. The biggest opportunity is clearly in the electricity sector. But there are other potential avenues for nuclear – for example to provide decarbonised heat or to supply low-emission hydrogen. These can help cut emissions from industry, which will be critical to reach climate goals.

And there is the issue of lifetime extensions for existing nuclear plants, provided of course their safe operation. Given the urgency of the climate challenge, countries need to consider their options carefully before they forego a readily available source of low-emission electricity. Extending the safe operation of today’s nuclear fleet is one of the cheapest ways to secure clean power at scale: It can help pave a cost-effective path to net zero.

The final task is to innovate. Innovation in nuclear technologies is a very dynamic space, particularly for nuclear power technologies such as Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs. Of course, as with every emerging technology, there are ups and downs, successes and failures, that is quite normal. But SMRs are a promising technology and there is a race underway. The race is among leading countries and companies to prove this technology and bring it to market. More than 80 projects around the world are moving forward, and several of our Member States have expressed a strong interest in SMRs.

So to conclude, I leave you with these four tasks: invest now for climate-neutrality 2050, broaden your engagement with clean energy transition, consider extending the lifetimes of existing plants with full commitment to the highest levels of safety, and innovate. If the industry and governments can deliver on these tasks, then I can see a way for nuclear power to make a significant contribution to a rapid, safe and secure net-zero future.