A Climate-Neutral Belgium by 2050: What Role Can a Nuclear Extension Play?


EnergyVille/VITO Expands the PATHS2050 Platform with New Scenarios 

Brussels, October 9, 2023 – In recent years, EnergyVille/VITO has been researching the optimal way to achieve a climate-neutral Belgium by 2050, and this at the lowest societal cost. In the autumn of 2022, the findings of this research were made publicly available on the PATHS2050 – The Power of Perspective Platform. Now, EnergyVille/VITO is expanding the PATHS2050 Platform with new scenarios commissioned by Febeliec – scenarios which involve extending the operational lifespan of the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 nuclear power plants by 20 years instead of 10 years, and which also consider the impact of potentially restarting two additional nuclear power plants, Doel 3 and Tihange 2. 

The newly found results show that a 20-year extension of Doel 4 and Tihange 3 at a cost of 65€/MWh would be part of a cost-optimal mix. A restart of Doel 3 and Tihange 2 in 2030 is, economically speaking, a lot less interesting. The restart is no longer cost-effective at a cost higher than 75€/MWh, and as such only marginally reduces electricity production costs at a cost just below 75€/MWh. Especially after 2035, both scenarios have a downward impact on the share of renewable energy in the overall energy mix, even though they do not fundamentally alter the calculated emission reduction pathways. 

Note: The assumed total cost of a nuclear extension is a well-founded assumption, and is not the result of in-house research. All numbers regarding costs are in €2019, in accordance with our other PATHS2050 results.  

This latest study is an extension of the initial PATHS2050 study published in the autumn of 2022. Under all scenarios of that study, it was assumed that the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 nuclear power plants would extend their operational lifespans by 10 years between 2025 and 2035. This new follow-up study now analyses the impact of extending the operational lifespan of nuclear power plants in two ways:

  • What if the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 nuclear power plants were to remain operational until 2045 instead of 2035? 
  • What if two additional nuclear power plants, Doel 3 and Tihange 2, were to be restarted from 2030 or 2035 onwards?

Note: Estimated costs for nuclear extension projects in Doel 4, Tihange 3, and other Belgian plants were not available. Therefore, in this study, it is assumed that the total cost of expanding the nuclear power plants is equal to the strike price for nuclear energy, ranging from 65€/MWh to 75€/MWh. This study does not provide information on the bottom-up costs of extending the operational lifespan or restarting nuclear power plants. 

Conclusion 1: Extending Doel 4 and Tihange 3 by 20 years at a total cost of 65€/MWh would be cost-effective.

A scenario was examined in which 65€/MWh was considered to be the total costs of extending nuclear energy over 20 years. The results indicated that this extension is part of a cost-optimal mix.

Conclusion 2: Restarting an additional 2 GW of nuclear power plants in 2030 for 20 years is only cost-effective if the cost is less than 75€/MWh.

The question examined was the following: if Doel 4 and Tihange 3 are extended for the period 2025 – 2045, what would be the impact of restarting an additional 2 GW of nuclear power plants, namely Doel 3 and Tihange 2, from 2030 to 2050? 

A sensitivity analysis indicated that this investment could be cost-effective under a price of up to 75€/MWh. This is an upper limit, meaning that an investment above 75€/MWh would not be cost-effective. The costs for restarting this additional 2 GW will certainly be higher than for the already planned restart of Doel 4 and Tihange 3, as Doel 3 and Tihange 2 have been closed in the meantime. Costs for grid extensions were not included in this calculation.

Conclusion 3: The cost-effectiveness of restarting an additional 2 GW of nuclear power plants decreases over time.

Currently, no public information is available from the operators regarding the operational extension of nuclear power plants other than Doel 4 and Tihange 3. Therefore, preparing Doel 3 and Tihange 2 for energy production by 2030 comes with a significant amount of uncertainty and challenges. Given the many obstacles still in place to restart nuclear power plants currently being prepared for decommissioning, a sensitivity analysis was performed, assuming that technical updates or investments for a restart would only be ready by 2035 instead of 2030. In that case, the threshold for a cost-effective investment would be 70€/MWh instead of 75€/MWh. The reason for this is that in the next decade, a substantial amount of electricity will still be produced from gas, while towards 2050, more and more electricity will be produced from cheaper renewable energy sources, reducing the profitability margin for extending the operational lifespan of nuclear power plants.

Conclusion 4: Extending Doel 4 and Tihange 3 by 20 years results in lower investments in renewable energy; the restart of Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reinforces this effect.

Significant amounts of renewable energy sources would be replaced by nuclear energy when 4 GW of nuclear energy is extended by 20 years. In 2030, for one terawatt-hour (TWh) of nuclear energy (13.5 TWh in total annually, assuming 80% availability), only 0.1 TWh of renewable energy would be displaced by nuclear energy. By 2040, the first 2 GW of nuclear capacity would already replace 0.6 TWh of renewable energy; however, the second 2 GW would replace 0.8 TWh of renewable energy per terawatt-hour of nuclear energy. Thus, the 20-year extension/restart of nuclear energy also has a negative impact on the investment certainty/profitability of renewable energy sources.

Conclusion 5: Restarting an additional 2 GW of nuclear power plants, in the shape and form of Doel 3 and Tihange 2, and extending Doel 4 and Tihange 3 by 20 years, have an impact on the energy system and reduces emissions, but they do not fundamentally change emission reduction routes

When extending 4 GW of nuclear power plants, there is a CO₂ emission reduction of 2.1 Mt/year in 2030 and 1.8 Mt/year in 2040. The CO₂ emission reduction by adding the first 2 GW – by extending Doel 4 and Tihange 3 – and the last 2 GW – by restarting Doel 3 and Tihange 2 – is 1.2 Mt/year and 0.6 Mt/year respectively in 2040. Extending 2 GW of nuclear energy until 2050 does not significantly increase the share of nuclear energy in that year; the model keeps the share of nuclear energy production relatively constant at 20% of the total production, while investments in new nuclear energy are postponed. Expanding the number of nuclear power plants extended for twenty years could hinder investments in small modular nuclear reactors.

Note: This study evaluates nuclear extension from an energy system perspective, not its business case.

It is important to note that this follow-up study examines the potential economic costs and benefits of nuclear extension from the perspective of the energy system. In other words, the study provides insight into whether a 20-year extension of 2 GW (Doel 4 and Tihange 3) is cost-effective. Additionally, the study sheds light on at what electricity production cost an extension of 2 GW of additional capacity (Doel 3 and Tihange 2) could be cost-effective for the energy system. This study does not assess the business case for investments in nuclear extension or restart. Therefore, it does not provide additional information about the practical feasibility and the possibility of finding an operator willing to finance the investments in the restart of nuclear power plants.

Curious to discover the broader framework within which this follow-up study was carried out? In the summer of 2022, our PATHS2050 Pioneers put pen to paper to write a full-fledged PATHS2050 report, outlining and detailing investment pathways to reach the 2050 climate targets, including a detailed description of the model setup, the scenarios and the assumptions used. 

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