Javier Ramírez

War on nuclear

For decades, public debate on nuclear power has been dominated by ideology. As the European Commission decides on the inclusion of the green taxonomy, the war between the pro and the anti blocs, led by France and Germany, gains momentum. Once again, governments are using ideological weapons in this battle. The European Executive has the opportunity and the obligation to decide whether to green label investment in nukes or not.

The EU has the opportunity to make a science-based decision on green labelling atomic energy

As a baby-boomer, I remember nuclear war as the main collective fear society lived with in the late 60’s and 70’s of the 20th century. I also recall the omnipresent yellow “no nukes” stickers (“Nucleares, no. Gracias”, in Spanish), some years after, as one of the icons of the Left during the Spanish transition to democracy in the mid 70’s.

Since then, many years before Chernobyl and Fukushima events, the ideological clash shadows the public debate on nuclear, keeping scientific and economic arguments in the background.

The European Union is entering into a war on nuclear energy, as Member States are taking antagonistic positions on the role of this energy source. The battlefield will be the EU’s sustainable investments’ taxonomy, the regulatory body that will set the investment in environmentally friendly activities, according with the EU opinion.

Being on or out of the list is no banal.

On one hand, at a systemic level, nuclear energy today accounts for half of the low-carbon energy in the EU and therefore plays a key role in its energy security. It also provides stability to the electric system, as nuclear plants operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (except for maintenance and refuelling stops). And they do not depend on external, out-of-control agents as wind or sunlight.

On the other hand, the EU’s taxonomy will set the “common language and a clear definition what is sustainable”, according to the European Commission. It will be the list of environmentally sustainable activities, helping investors, companies, and policymakers “to shift investment where they are most needed” for achieving the climate goals.  Not being included in the green taxonomy will mean to be cursed with restrictions to access public and private funding and higher financial costs. For example, the taxonomy’s “green label” will be crucial to mobilising private capital into Green Deal projects and setting the standard for the coming European green bonds.

Last April, the European Commission published its first batch of rules of its green sustainable investments’ taxonomy, covering 13 sectors, accountable for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. A decision on gas and nuclear, the two most controversial aspects of the taxonomy, was delayed and are being dealt with separately.

In 2020 the Commission launched an in-depth work to assess if nuclear energy deserves a green label. As the first step, in March 2021, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission's science and knowledge service to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy, drafted a technical report, stating that “the analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies.”

JRC’s report was reviewed by two sets of experts: the Group of Experts on radiation protection and waste management under Article 31 of the Euratom Treaty and the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER). Both reports, published last July 2nd, generally confirmed JRC’s conclusions, even SCHEER stated that “there are several findings where the (JRC’s) report is incomplete and requires to be enhanced with further evidence.”

The European Commission should decide about the inclusion of nuclear energy on the green taxonomy, considering all three reports.

It did not take too long the noise of political battle on nuclear to be heard. Nuclear energy advocates saw the report as a green light and did not wait too long for asking the European Commission to include this source of energy in the taxonomy.

Member States have the discretional right to choose whether to invest in nuclear or not. The Commission’s role is restricted to the develop the legal framework under the Euratom Treaty, to promote and guaranty safety and security. In fact, EC’s 2050 Long-Term Strategy models that nuclear energy would provide around 15% of electricity generation in 2050.

Pressure arose even before the approval of the first delegated act on the taxonomy. On March 19th, a group of seven European leaders fronted by French President Emmanuel Macron sent a letter to the European executive openly declaring their support for nuclear power and calling the Commission to stop hindering nuclear power. Signatories also included the leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

The letter appeals to arguments such as the EU’s obligation to promote nuclear power under the Treaty establishing the Euratom Community or the Member States freedom to opt for nuclear, “in mutual respect and regardless of policy choices of other member states”, the statement says. “In this context, all available and future zero and low-emission technologies have to be treated equally within all policies, including taxonomy of sustainable investments, aiming at achieving climate neutrality by 2050”.

But there are other reasons.

New nuclear reactors are planned in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria to decrease their reliance on coal. France, the champion of atomic energy within the EU, has an ambitious programme to replace some of its old plants with a new generation of pressurised water reactors.

The main concern is the higher cost of finance for new nuclear build if it is not green labelled. “The big issue for us with the taxonomy is that it will enable eligible companies to have access to bonds and funds that have a lower interest rate,” said Jessica Johnson, Communications Director at Foratom, the trade association representing the nuclear industry in Brussels, quoted by Euroactiv. “It means that the cost of finance could potentially be lower if they have access to these funds because the amount of interest they will have to pay back is a lot less”.

For its part, Germany is leading the call to keep nuclear out of EU taxonomy. On June 30th, the Environment or Energy and some Finance ministers of Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain sent a letter to the European Commission asking for nuclear energy to be kept out of the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

The letter discredits the JRC’s report arguing it has shortcomings. The signatories show their concern about “that including nuclear power in the taxonomy would permanently damage its integrity, credibility and therefore its usefulness”.

“We were disconcerted to learn that in the opinion of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), there were no indications that the high-risk technology that is nuclear power is more damaging to human health and to the environment than other forms of energy generation, such as wind and solar energy,” the letter says.

“Nuclear power, however, is a high-risk technology – wind energy is not. This essential difference must be taken into account,” they insisted, saying the Commission report deliberately ignored the possibility of a serious incident.

The position against nuclear power is heavily influenced by ideological stances. But other factors should also be considered. Some analysts read the German opposition to atomic energy as a bargaining chip for the negotiations about the consideration of natural gas on the EU taxonomy, because the high dependence of Germany on this energy source.

Both blocs appeal to political and ideological arguments, hiding legitimate economic reasons. For once, the EU seemed to have relied on science for making a decision. The European Commission should listen to all the Members States but stick to scientific criteria for policy making when it comes to decide whether the potential risks of a low carbon energy is high enough for keeping it out of the green list.