Nuclear power is roaring back in Central Europe, with advanced plans for new reactors in Hungary, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania, as well as tentative plans for small modular reactors (SMRs) across the region beginning in the 2030s.
Nuclear is seen by many countries as the solution to growing energy demand – due to the development of electromobility – and the need over the next few decades to replace ageing nuclear plants built with Soviet technology.
It is often the preferred solution because of the drawbacks of other forms of energy generation. Emerging Europe needs to end its heavy dependence on coal- and gas-fired power plants to meet its climate change commitments. This drive has been accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has hiked gas and coal prices and pushed countries to cut their worrying reliance on imported Russian energy sources.
At the same time, renewable energy is seen as only part of the solution in many countries, because of the low potential for solar and wind power.
Nuclear power is already a big component of the energy mix in Central Europe, with Slovakia, Czechia and Hungary depending on it for more than a third of their consumption. In Southeast Europe it is less present: Romania’s Cernavoda and Bulgaria’s Kozloduy and Slovenia’s Krsko are the only nuclear power plants in the region.
Central European countries such as Czechia were therefore insistent that nuclear should be considered part of the European Union’s green taxonomy, meaning that private investors will have EU backing to invest in certain types of nuclear projects in the medium term.
Green NGOs have criticised this EU compromise and argue that Emerging Europe should prioritise investment in renewables, which could also trigger a surge in new green technology companies across the region.
Instead, this nuclear boom offers a windfall for companies such as Westinghouse Electric Co of the US, which told Bloomberg in November that it plans to focus on Central and Eastern Europe. Westinghouse has been asked to build Poland’s first three reactors, and it is also a strong favourite to build a new planned unit at the Czech Dukovany plant.
Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor seems tailor made for both tenders, while rivals such as France’s EDF and Korea’s KHNP still need to win European licences for models in that size bracket (and Westinghouse is also suing KHNP for alleged unauthorised sharing of its nuclear technology with other countries). Meanwhile, geopolitical considerations mean that Russia’s Rosatom as well as China General Nuclear Power Group are likely to be excluded from most tenders.
Emerging Europe is also trying to diversify away from its reliance on Russian nuclear fuel, though this is more difficult. Russia may only supply 6% of the global raw uranium market, but it controls 40% of the conversion market – where uranium oxide, or yellowcake, is converted into uranium hexafluoride – and 46% of the enrichment market, where the U-235 content in raised to 3-5%, allowing nuclear fuel to be formed. Also, Russia is prominent is many stages of the global nuclear fuel cycle through various state-owned companies grouped under the Rosatom umbrella.
However, financing this nuclear boom remains a significant issue, with private investors shunning the sector since the Fukashima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
The big upfront investment required, the long and often delayed (and over-budget) construction process, the safety fears, the cost of disposing of nuclear waste, as well as the future decommissioning costs have all made nuclear power fall out of favour compared to (the up till now) cheap gas-powered plants as well as the new renewable technologies that have often benefited from government subsidies.
The lack of private sector backing for these huge nuclear investments means that the burden has been put back on governments to provide the finance, as well as often guarantee the future energy prices that the plants can charge. Such arrangements have to be approved by Brussels in order to meet EU state aid rules.
Below bne IntelliNews’ reporters across Emerging Europe look at the nuclear plans in their countries and assess how feasible they are.
Poland is arguably Europe’s hottest new nuclear market. The only Central European country not to have developed a nuclear power plant, Poland is now trying with an ambitious programme of six reactors in three different locations.
The programme has recently come to life, kicking. Over the space of a few days in October, the Law and Justice (PiS) government first said that it picked the US company Westinghouse Electric to build the first three reactors, at an estimated cost of $20bn.
Then two large Polish energy companies, ZE PAK (controlled by billionaire Zygmunt Solorz-Zak) and the state-run PGE, signed a letter of intent with Korea’s KHNP, promising to build a second plant.
If executed as planned – which is unlikely, given nuclear power projects habitually run behind schedule and suffer from cost overruns – nuclear power's share in Poland's energy mix could be as high as 30%, according to Climate and Environment Minister Anna Moskwa.
The government-backed Westinghouse project appears to have what it takes to move on relatively fast. It is past an initial location choice and has one of the key documents – an environmental impact assessment – in place.
Westinghouse will build a 1,250 MW pressurised water reactor AP1000, which the company recently fitted in two new American nuclear power plants, Vogtle 3 and Vogtle 4. Similar reactors are also operational in China.
The government assumes that by 2026, the project will have secured an all-important environmental permit, a prerequisite to getting a construction permit, and construction teams – headed by another US firm, Bechtel – will move to the site in the seaside municipality of Choczewo.
They will be in for a tight schedule, which assumes the plant will go online just seven years later in 2033, a timetable doubted even by the most dedicated pro-nuclear experts and activists.
Financing is still being worked out. In March 2021 the Polish government separated the nuclear power company, Polskie Elektrownie Jądrowe (PEJ), from PGE and took 100% control. It is currently in negotiations to convince Westinghouse to take a significant shareholding in the new plant.
Still, even with delays, Poland hopes that the maiden project will give it expertise to step up building other reactors envisaged by the government so that king coal’s last realm in Europe becomes a thing of the past.
Once the planned nuclear power plants are all in place by the mid-2040s, Poland’s notoriously emissions-heavy electricity generation sector is expected to be no more than 28% coal-reliant. The share is now over 70%.
While Hungary’s government is trying to reduce dependence on Russian gas, at the same time Budapest is further strengthening cooperation with Moscow in the field of nuclear energy.
The country’s National Atomic Energy Office (OAH) has issued the implementation licence for the expansion of the Russian-built Paks nuclear facility by two blocks with a capacity of 1,200 MW each. The €12bn project carried out by Rosatom for state-owned energy group MVM, the largest infrastructural project in Hungary’s history, is five to six years behind schedule due to security concerns.
With the new licenses granted, the government hopes that the new blocks will be operational in 2030. Paks, currently operating with four 500 MW blocks, accounts for half of the country’s electricity production and more than a third of consumption. Expanding nuclear capacity is vital as the four existing blocks are set to be decommissioned between 2032 and 2037.
Nuclear energy remains the cornerstone of the country’s energy strategy. By 2030 some 90% of the country’s electricity production could be carbon-free.
Hungary aims to reduce its gas consumption by 2030 to cover a quarter of its needs from domestic sources and cut off gas imports from Russia entirely by 2050, according to government projections. Natural gas accounts for 44% of the country’s energy usage, including electricity production and district heating
Hungary is one of the most dependent countries on Russian energy. Russia accounts for more than 90% of gas imports.
Paks nuclear power station.
The Czech government has launched a tender to build a fifth unit at Dukovany nuclear power station, together with a non-binding option to build the third and fourth units of the Temelin Nuclear Power Plant and a sixth unit at Dukovany.
This would enable the country to phase out coal-fired power generation by 2033, and decommission the four existing Dukovany units. It would maintain the strong presence of nuclear power in the Czech energy mix – in 2021 nuclear represented 37% of energy consumption, according to IAEA figures.
Majority state-owned Czech energy utility CEZ received offers from France's EDF, South Korea's KHNP and the US' Westinghouse in November for the construction of the 1200 MW third block at the Dukovany nuclear power plant. The government has talked about CZK160bn (€6.6bn) as the cost of the first unit alone, though this is seen as an underestimate by most experts.
CEZ will now enter negotiations with the bidders and final offers are expected by the end of September 2023, with a decision by December and a contract signing by the end of 2024. The first unit is meant to enter production in 2036.
The tender has been delayed by disagreement over how to pay for the new units. The previous government finally accepted that the state would have to pay for them, given the risk of being sued by CEZ minority shareholders if it forced CEZ to pay for a project with an uncertain payback for the company.
The plans are still vague but it is understood that the nuclear division of CEZ will be broken off and nationalised. The state will give an interest-free loan for the construction of the plant, together with a guaranteed price for its output. This will have to be cleared by the European Commission.
CEZ also plans SMRs of between 200 MW and 400 MW at Temelin and at coal power stations reaching the end of their lives in Northern Bohemia and Northern Moravia. The first SMR at Temelin could be operational in 2032, according to CEZ.
Construction of the third unit at Mochovce resumed in 2008 and was finally completed last year. It should run at full capacity at the start of this year. The new VVER pressurised water reactor has an output of 471 MW, covering some 13% of electricity consumption in the country.
Slovenske Elektrarne, which is 34% state-owned, plans to build a fourth unit at Mochovce this decade. It also has two existing units at Bohunice. Altogether, nuclear power provides 52% of Slovak consumption, according to the IAEA.
Mochovce nuclear power plant.
The Baltics no longer have any nuclear power plants. Lithuania closed its nuclear power plant in Ignalina in 2009 as part of its EU accession deal, and a plan to build a new plant in Visaginas was rejected in a referendum in 2012.
In recent years ministers in both Lithuania and Estonia have speculated about the future need to invest in nuclear power to meet energy demand and cut links with Russia, but so far there is no political agreement on this and no concrete plans have been laid.
There has been plenty of discussion about investment into nuclear capacity in Southeast Europe — both before and after the invasion of Ukraine — but the expansion of Romania’s Cernavoda nuclear power plant (NPP) is the only major project that is currently going ahead.
Two new units of 700 MW each will be built at the Cernavoda nuclear power plant, in a project set to cost an estimated $8bn and be completed by 2030 and 2031 respectively. Romania is working with US, French and Canadian companies on the project, after it scrapped a deal with China's CGN. The project company sealed an engineering contract with Canada’s Candu Energy (part of SNC-Lavalin group) in November 2021.
The Romanian state will provide full guarantees for the financing contracted by the project company EnergoNuclear and will also guarantee a certain price for the electricity produced, under a contract for difference (CfD).
The government will seek to get the European Union’s permission to qualify both measures as extra-budgetary operations – but if this is not possible, it will accommodate the related measures within the general government budget.
The intermediate investment decision should be taken by May 30, 2023, and the final decision by May 31, 2025, but both deadlines can be extended. The third reactor would be completed in 2030, and the fourth in 2031.
State-controlled nuclear energy company Nuclearelectrica also announced in July that it was going ahead with refurbishment of the Unit 1 reactor at Cernavoda, at an expected cost of €1.85bn.
Romanian joint-venture RoPower Nuclear – owned in equal shares by state-controlled Nuclearelectrica and private energy company Nova Power & Gas – also commissioned American firm NuScale Power LLC in June to carry out a study to build a small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear plant at the Doicesti Power Station site in Romania.
"Romania is taking firm steps towards energy independence and becoming a net energy exporter," Romanian PM Nicolae Ciuca wrote on Facebook at the time. Currently nuclear energy represents 18.5% of Romanian energy consumption, according to IAEA figures.
Bulgaria has a nuclear power plant at Kozloduy and planned to build a second nuclear power plant, Belene, but after repeated u-turns the project was scrapped. Nuclear energy represents 34.6% of Bulgaria’s energy consumption, according to IAEA figures.
Belene was planned initially as a substitute for four of the Kozloduy plant’s reactors that were decommissioned as a condition for the country to join the EU. But the project’s safety and economic viability were repeatedly questioned.
The sunk costs for the scrapped Belene project were high, as Bulgaria had to reimburse over €600mn to Atomstroyexport, a unit of Russia’s Rosatom, which won the contract to build the power plant and had already started work.
There is no official data on how much Bulgaria spent on the Belene project, but experts estimate the sum is at least €3bn since the initial launch of the project.
As Bulgaria looked to diversify its power supply, instead of reviving Belene again, the four-party coalition in power in mid-2022 said it could build new facilities at the site of the existing Kozloduy NPP.
In April, Euractiv reported that Bulgaria and Greece were in early-stage talks on the construction of a nuclear power plant. Bulgaria’s then finance minister Assen Vassilev said that Sofia wanted to sign a 20-year agreement with Greece to use Bulgaria’s nuclear power.
However, Bulgaria is in the midst of a political crisis with the formation of a government in the parliament elected on October 2 looking unlikely, so there is no immediate prospect of long-term decisions on investment projects being made.
Slovenia is considering holding a referendum on whether to construct a second reactor at the Krsko NPP, which was reconnected to the grid in November after maintenance. The Slovenian government has said that a decision on whether to build a new unit will be taken by the end of 2027.
Krsko’s first unit, a 696 MW Westinghouse pressurised water reactor, generates some 37% of Slovenia's electricity consumption. It is a 50-50 joint venture between Slovenia’s state-owned energy group Gen Energija and Croatian national power company Hrvatska Elektroprivreda.
Even before the current crisis, Serbia had been considering buying a stake in a nuclear power plant in the region (most likely Bulgaria or Hungary) or even building its own small modular nuclear power plant.
The director of Serbian state utility Belgrade Power Plants, Rade Basta, has repeatedly called for Serbia to build its own nuclear power plant to ensure a stable supply of power.
In October, President Aleksandar Vucic outlined plans to tackle the energy crisis. He commented on potential cooperation with Hungary, saying: “There are proposals on table to become co-owners of part of their nuclear power plants Paks 1 and Paks 2. We would pay for it with money, or offer them shares in some of our companies.”
Moldova is considering joining Romania’s small-scale nuclear reactors programme. Moldova could be supplied with electricity from the mini-nuclear power plants to be built in Romania, Deputy PM Andrei Spinu said in September.
North Macedonia has been forced to import high-priced electricity from international markets, due to the lack of domestic production.
Back in 2011, Skopje had been considering building a nuclear power plant to be fuelled with uranium deposits believed to lie in the southern Mariovo region, but this never happened.
Economist Goran Rafajlovski from Skopje-based firm Rafajlovski Consulting pointed out in an interview with bne IntelliNews that “If a nuclear power plant had been built, we would have been exporters of electricity.”
The plan was dropped because it was considered too expensive and the country lacked trained staff and space for the nuclear waste to be stored. North Macedonia attempted to join the construction Bulgaria’s Belene nuclear power plant a few years ago, but in 2020 it decided to withdraw.
Reporting by Robert Anderson in Prague, Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw, Denitsa Koseva in Sofia, Tamas Csonka in Budapest, Clare Nuttall in Glasgow, Iulian Ernst in Bucharest, and Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius.