With skyrocketing energy prices in Europe and growing pressure on the European Union to cut carbon emissions faster, it was only a matter of time before the debate on the zero-carbon nuclear energy is coming back to the fore – and with it, old divisions between EU member states.
On New Year’s Eve, the European Commission presented the 27 EU member states with a draft regulation designating natural gas and nuclear energy as “green” fuels for electricity generation. The project includes nuclear as it produces virtually no emissions and gases as it is seen as a relatively clean transition fuel that will help the EU phase out much dirtier coal.
If approved by the European Parliament and member states, nuclear and gas will join renewable sources such as wind and solar on a list of technologies approved for private investment and EU financial support from of 2023.
Why is this important, when each EU country decides for itself how to produce electricity? Brussels wants to accelerate emissions cuts to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by mid-century – and following recent EU budget reforms, the commission is monitoring now substantial funds to help achieve this goal.
Additionally, an official EU designation as green can help private companies, including lenders, meet increasingly pervasive environmental, social and governance mandates.
Some climate-conscious European governments will be concerned that gas, a fossil fuel, is on the EU list. But a much bigger controversy has erupted over nuclear, where the fault lines in Europe run deep.
Fission reactors currently supply around a quarter of the EU’s electricity which cannot be quickly replaced by other carbon-free sources. Second, nuclear power plants produce electricity 24 hours a day, which helps keep the lights on as the EU deploys more and more wind turbines and solar installations that do not produce electricity when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.
Until December 31, 2021, when the project was quickly leaked to the press, the commission kept the inclusion of nuclear in the list of green technologies a secret, but it was no surprise decision. In 2018, the commission told EU states and parliamentarians that to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, electricity production must increase two and a half times and that electricity from nuclear energy should be part of the non-carbon energy mix.
That view was echoed this weekend by EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who told Le Journal du Dimanche he expects 500 billion euros of investment in nuclear energy are needed by 2050. Yet it took the commission three years to establish the new criteria due to longstanding safety and environmental concerns and objections from member states critical of the ‘nuclear energy.
By the time the proposed European settlement was leaked, battle lines were being drawn along the Rhine.
France, with 56 power reactors and nuclear weapons, is by far the leading atomic state in the EU. He is set to launch a national nuclear energy investment campaign, announced by President Emmanuel Macron last fall and backed by most presidential candidates this year.
Germany, by contrast, permanently shut down three of its six remaining reactors the same day the commission sent out the draft regulations, in line with Berlin’s 2011 pledge to phase out nuclear power. The Social Democrats and anti-nuclear Greens who took over from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government last month are on track to complete the phased exit by the end of this year.
Joining Germany is even more staunchly anti-nuclear from Austria and a handful of other countries, while France’s most vocal support for nuclear power comes from Finland and the Czech Republic.
If it were only about climate policy and carbon emissions, the debate would have been settled long ago. France, where 70% of electricity comes from nuclear power, has the lowest electricity generation emissions per capita among the major EU economies. Germany, where coal consumption and emissions increased in 2021, far exceeds the EU average and produces more than six times the per capita emissions of France’s electricity generation, although Germany presents itself as a green precursor.
Given that Germany is Europe’s largest economy, leads a group of half a dozen EU states that oppose nuclear power, and Now led by the Greens, whose credibility will be tested by the proposed settlement, one would expect Berlin to spearhead the dispute with Brussels over the proposed settlement. In reality, however, this is unlikely for at least three reasons.
The first is that Germany systematically favors a close relationship with France. On January 1, France assumed the rotating presidency of the EU, giving it power over the bloc’s agenda during the six months when member states can consider the proposed new rule. Macron clearly wants to push climate change issues in Brussels, as does Germany.
Last month, German Greens leader and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, on her first trip abroad immediately after taking office, met her French counterpart in Paris and stressed her commitment to a Franco- strong German. Ahead of the impending EU nuclear decision, Greens leaders expect the majority of EU states to accept the proposal.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has played down opposition to the EU proposal within his government, and the Greens’ damage control campaign is already blaming Merkel for paving the way for the EU initiative.
German opposition may also be blunted because the commission presented the inclusion of nuclear as part of a comprehensive deal that allows EU states during the energy transition to burn natural gas, a fuel on which the Germany is counting more and more to compensate for the loss of nuclear and coal in the electricity energy mix.
Finally, Berlin cannot fiercely oppose nuclear regulation because it is uncertain whether it will actually encourage significant nuclear investment. Indeed, the proposal includes nuclear waste management criteria which constitute a potential obstacle.
For newly built reactors and life extensions of existing reactors, the draft criteria requires “a plan with detailed milestones to bring into operation, by 2050, a disposal facility for highly radioactive waste”. This would imply that all essential activities of a repository project – geological examination, site and technology selection, political approvals, licensing and construction – be completed in less than three decades.
While that may seem like a long time, Europe’s record suggests otherwise. In Finland, where public acceptance of nuclear power is high, it took about 40 years to start operating a site. In Sweden, the quest for storage has been ongoing for nearly half a century and will not be complete until 2030.
Spain began geological examination in the 1980s but does not plan to operate a repository until 2068. According to the final version of the repository regulations, nuclear investments by 2050 could be few.
Despite its approval in principle, the plan also includes other conditions that could discourage large-scale nuclear investment. The proposed regulations require an opinion from the commission that new nuclear projects deploy the “most advanced solutions” and the “best available technology”, including accident-tolerant fuels still under development and which have not yet been allowed. The draft also includes periodic technology reviews by the commission, as well as notification requirements.
EU member states now have until January 21 to file interventions and counter-proposals. There will be many and it will be up to the commission to decide which one to accept.
Once the commission has prepared its final version, the regulation will be scrutinized by the European Parliament and member states for a period of up to six months. Provided a majority of parliamentarians or a super-majority of 20 member states do not object, the EU plan could finally come to fruition – more than three years after the commission first announced its intention to promote zero-carbon nuclear energy in the fight to reduce emissions.
Mark Hibbs/Columnist. Illustration: TBS
Mark Hibbs/Columnist. Illustration: TBS
Mark Hibbs is a Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Warning: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy and is published by special syndication arrangement.