The role of the government in building nuclear reactors

Het kabinet zet ‘benodigde stappen’ voor kernenergie. Welke rol speelt de overheid bij de bouw van een kerncentrale?

As of recently, there is a lot of renewed attention or nuclear energy in the Netherlands as part of the transition to green and renewable energy. In the coalition agreement of the Dutch national government is written that the reactor in Borssele will be kept open for longer. The document also states that the necessary preparatory steps will be taken for the construction of two new nuclear reactors.

The construction of nuclear reactors is a complex procedure with a very long lead time. But also with uncertainty concerning permits. Additionally, large sums of money have to be financed. The consideration to build a nuclear reactor is not one made overnight. But which role does the government play?

In September of 2020, the house of representatives accepted a motion of Klaas Dijkhoff (VVD) for a market consultation about investing in nuclear reactors in the Netherlands. KPMG, who carried out this research, questioned among others contractors, suppliers, operators, and nuclear technology decommissioning specialists under which criteria they would be willing to invest in nuclear energy. This report concluded that the involvement of the national government seems unavoidable because the scale and risks of these projects cannot entirely be borne by market actors.

Research of KPMG
In this research, we also see the importance of the prolonged lifespan of the reactor in Borssele. This would initially only be operational until 2033. The primary goal is; to maintain nuclear expertise in the Netherlands. The question parties gave this last point as one of their requirements. Keeping Borssele open after is a relatively easy way to generate a large amount of green energy after 2033.

The research gives preference to Generation III+ Light Water reactors. This is because this is a proven technology that has already been commercially implemented. Former secretary of state Yeşilgöz-Zegerius of the Economy and Climate answers to the house of representatives. She indicates that, based on the KPMG report, Generation III+ Licht Water reactors can be realized within 11 to 15 years starting from the permit stage. The government must facilitate market actors to get into the permit phase as easily as possible by creating a favorable investment climate.

The modern standardized Generation II reactors are seen as unachievable due to the lack of social support. The Generation IV reactors have big advantages compared to earlier generations. However, it is not possible to realize these on time to reach the climate goals of 2050. Other people are in support of Small Modular reactors (SMR). These could be realized within the next 10 years, starting from the permit phase. But a proven design will likely not be available before 2027.

The Role of the Government
Cabinet Rutte IV has been proactive in enlarging the sector in the Netherlands. It sees nuclear energy as a key element for the energy transition and the end of reliance on imported gas. The government wants to invest 500 million by 2025 and has budgeted a total of 5 billion towards this cause. The coalition agreement also stipulates that the government needs to have an active role in the facilitation of exploration, the support of innovation, launching tenders, and putting in order regulation. And, do not forget the facilitation of the permanent storage of nuclear waste.

Scenario research into the effect of nuclear reactors on the Dutch energy system will be conducted in follow-up on the market consultation. The conclusions of this study, which will likely be completed in the summer of 2022, will help guide the next steps of the cabinet.

A proactive role of the government will be essential to realize more nuclear energy in the Netherlands. One of the possibilities is for the government to cover some of the potential risks or to give financial aid. It is also important to keep the knowledge in the sector on an acceptable level. This is all necessary to make it realistic and viable for market actors to invest in nuclear energy.