Austria ready to sue EU over nuclear’s inclusion in green finance taxonomy

Austrian minister Leonore Gewessler told EURACTIV why nuclear energy had no place in the EU's sustainable finance rules and why her country was prepared to challenge the expected delegated act in court. Image Source: Parlamentsdirektion / Thomas Jantzen

Austria’s energy and climate minister Leonore Gewessler told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview that her country was ready to go to court if the EU decides to include nuclear power into the bloc’s taxonomy on sustainable finance.

In October, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU executive would soon table proposals on gas and nuclear as part of the bloc’s sustainable finance taxonomy, a set of rules designed to provide investors with a common definition of what is green and what is not.

A group of twelve EU countries, led by France and Finland, want nuclear energy included, arguing it is a low-carbon energy source and that radioactive waste can be handled safely if appropriate measures are taken.

But Austria would be ready to challenge that decision in front of the European Court of Justice said Leonore Gewessler, the Austrian minister for climate protection and energy.

“There is no legal basis for including nuclear power in the EU taxonomy,” Gewessler said adding that, “Yes, if the EU taxonomy includes nuclear energy, we are ready to challenge that in court.”

Austria is at the centre of a five-country alliance bringing together Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal, which seeks to prevent the inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU’s green finance rules. The alliance was launched during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Five EU countries form anti-nuclear alliance at COP26

In face of a French-led push to revive nuclear power in Europe, a group of five EU countries led by Germany have banded together to urge the European Commission to keep nuclear out of the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

Legal analysis

For Gewessler, “the credibility of the taxonomy is at stake” when deciding how to classify nuclear under the EU’s green finance rules.

The Austrian energy and climate ministry commissioned a legal analysis earlier this year, which found that “that the inclusion of nuclear energy is not compatible with the legal basis of Article 10 of the Taxonomy Regulation,” she said.

“We have a great responsibility here, in terms of taxonomy, to remain consistent and coherent”  with the ambitions of the European Green Deal and maintain trust in the financial markets, she argued.

“The considerable damage caused by nuclear energy is well documented historically,” she explained, citing “the dangers of nuclear power itself” as evidenced by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

The safe disposal of spent radioactive fuel is also a matter of concern. “We have not yet found a global solution for…the question of final storage,” she said.

Besides, nuclear power “is much too expensive and much too slow to make a contribution” to the bloc’s climate goals, Gewessler continued.

The next-generation French reactor currently being built at Flamanville, whose construction started in 2007, has been massively delayed, with completion now scheduled in 2023 while costs have increased fivefold, she remarked.

Earlier this month, leading French EU lawmaker Pascal Canfin proposed letting nuclear energy and gas in the taxonomy as “transition” energy sources while the bloc pursues its long-term switch to renewable energy sources.

Canfin’s suggestion is to label gas a “transition” investment when it replaces coal and provided strict emission thresholds are met.

But Gewessler rejected that proposal too. “Just because something is less bad than coal doesn’t make it good or sustainable. It is still fossil energy,” she said.

Canfin MEP: 'Here is my proposal to find the right compromise on gas and nuclear in the taxonomy'

With proper safeguards in place, both gas and nuclear power can be included in the “transition” category of the EU’s green finance taxonomy, says Pascal Canfin, a leading lawmaker in the European Parliament.

According to Gewessler, Austria will be able to count on the support of Germany and Spain in case it goes to court over the matter. 

“Spain shares Austria’s position one-to-one. Spain sees neither nuclear energy nor fossil gas in the taxonomy and has made this very clear before,” she said.

While Spain has been absent from the five-country alliance announced at COP26, it “sent a joint letter [with Austria and others] on nuclear energy to the Commission months ago. There is no room between us,” explained Gewessler.

And Austria’s neighbour Germany can always be counted on in the fight against nuclear power.

“Nuclear power cannot be a solution in the climate crisis, it is too risky, it is too slow, it is too expensive,” explained her German counterpart Svenja Schulze, caretaker minister of the environment, on 11 November.

“No climate activist should rely on nuclear power,” she added.

LEAKED: Paper on gas and nuclear’s inclusion in EU green finance rules

A proposal to bring both nuclear power and natural gas into the bloc’s green finance taxonomy is circulating in Brussels. The paper has been branded as a “scientific disgrace” by campaigners who warned it would damage the EU’s credibility on green finance.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Alice Taylor]

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