The Unattainable Utopia of a Nuclear-Free EU

By Gregory Lens

The inclusion of nuclear energy as a potentially “green” energy source by the EU’s own in-house scientific body has yet again sparked division among member states, laying bare the wildly varying approaches to the future of nuclear power and what ought to be considered sustainable energy in general.

On June 30th, the European Commission received a letter of concern signed by the environment or energy ministers of Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Spain. In said letter, the officials urged the Commission to keep nuclear energy out of the green finance taxonomy, which is an EU-wide classification system developed to provide an overview of the economic activities that are to be marked as sustainable and activities that could benefit from financial support provided by the EU.

In a direct reaction to the Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) report on nuclear power, the ministers argue that “nuclear power is incompatible with the Taxonomy Regulation’s ‘do no significant harm’ principle”. Last April, the JRC found nuclear power to be a safe and environmentally friendly energy source, on par with energy derived from classic green sources such as wind and hydropower. The JRC’s conclusion could potentially pave the way for a green investment label on nuclear energy plans, which would significantly lower costs of building new nuclear projects.

The stance of these five countries does not come as a surprise during a time where certain member states’ state policies on energy are increasingly shifting towards an all-out ban on nuclear energy. The main issue which is being neglected or outright ignored by the anti-nuclear states is the fact that in the EU’s race to cut emissions down to zero, nuclear energy plays an essential part of the EU’s low-emission energy production. 

It is clear that Germany – the key signatory to the letter – is leading the pack of EU members who exhibit a problematic lack of solidarity in regard to nuclear energy-dependent member states. Out of 27 member states, 13 have operational nuclear reactors. Of those 13, France and Slovakia use them as the main providers of their electricity supply, whereas the other members depend on nuclear energy to meet a significant amount of up to nearly a half of their citizen’s energy consumption demands.

Phasing out nuclear energy before ending reliance on fossil fuels has been proven to be a mistake, not in the least by Germany itself, which is now importing more Russian fossil fuels to meet consumption demands. Banning the construction of new nuclear reactors and shutting down existing ones has, in Germany’s case cynically, led to even more fossil fuel consumption. While Germany touts a record national emission reduction, it hypocritically disregards the environmental concerns related to gas sourcing in the Arctic. Despite the environmental and financial consequences of Germany’s phase-out, already energy-poor Belgium is now on track to walk into the exact same disastrous footsteps due to opposition to nuclear energy by the governing parties.

Renewable energy sources such as wind, water and solar power on their own do not have the capacity to provide clean power to all of the EU before the zero-emission target in 2050. Opposition to nuclear power by member states with a decent supply of natural resources does not take into consideration countries where the geography and climate simply do not provide enough possibilities to discard nuclear power plants without risking an energy shortage.

For the latter, nuclear energy is the only way to realistically transform their energy systems to climate-neutral ones. 

The five signatories to the letter do have a valid point in regard to the safety issues surrounding the ageing reactors. There is no doubt that some reactors will have to shut down eventually. However, by arguing to leave nuclear energy out of the green finance taxonomy, the financial burden on certain resource-poor countries that are unable to meet the zero-emissions target before the deadline without building new reactors would be too high. This could potentially cause the risk of blackouts and necessary prolonging of fossil fuels as an energy source, a worst-case scenario where nobody wins.

It is in the best interests of the entire European Union to include low-carbon nuclear energy in the sustainable taxonomy, at least until 2050, to make sure the climate target will be attained without risking the collapse of energy provision or forced continuation of fossil fuel use.

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