A group of ten European countries have heaped pressure on the European Commission to grant nuclear energy a ‘green’ label under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy, which acts as a guide to climate-friendly investments.
Energy ministers from the group of ten supported nuclear’s inclusion in the taxonomy during an extraordinary meeting of the EU’s Energy Council on Tuesday (26 October), convened hastily last week in response to rising energy prices.
A proposal from the European Commission is now expected “by the end of the year,” said Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner.
“Nuclear energy is part of the solution to climate neutrality. Therefore, for us, taxonomy and nuclear is an important issue,” said Finnish energy minister Mika Lintilä.
Earlier this month, a group of ministers from ten EU countries signed a joint opinion article saying “nuclear power must be part of the solution” to the climate crisis and included in the taxonomy.
The article was signed by the economy and energy ministers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
At this week’s ministerial meeting, the Netherlands offered their support while Sweden also spoke favourably about nuclear.
“The Netherlands further supports a swift conclusion of the delegated acts on the taxonomy, taking nuclear energy into consideration. The context of this act should be science-based to ensure that there will be long term credibility,” said Dutch minister Stef Blok.
“Sweden believes that we will need all cost-effective fossil-free solutions, including bioenergy and nuclear, that contribute to the EU’s climate targets and to cut our dependency on fossil fuels,” said Anders Ygeman, the Swedish energy minister.
Altogether, the group is a collection of historical advocates and recent converts to nuclear, says Foratom the industry body for nuclear energy.
“What has been very interesting is how the debate has shifted over the last few weeks. First of all, I think it’s because we have more and more member states recognising that, in order to achieve the decarbonisation goals, we need nuclear in the mix,” said Jessica Johnson from Foratom.
“That shift is partly to do with the fact that some member states are now changing their opinion on nuclear and this has been happening over the last year or so. But also [because of] the recent energy crisis, I think more and more people are starting to recognise the risk of depending on imports,” she told EURACTIV.
The global spike in energy prices has put a spotlight on Europe’s reliance on foreign powers, particularly Russia, for its gas.
Nuclear energy, however, is less reliant on imports. Uranium is available from multiple sources and only a small amount is required to generate a large amount of energy. Moreover, most operators store sufficient uranium supplies onsite for two to three years of operation, according to Foratom.
Gas thrown into the mix
Among the countries pushing for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the taxonomy is a smaller faction that is also pushing for fossil gas to be included as a transitional fuel.
This group is made up of central and eastern European countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia – which argue they need gas in order to ditch more-polluting coal.
“We also need to create a positive investment climate for all technologies necessary for transition to a low-carbon secure energy system,” said Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, the Polish minister for climate and environment.
“The Commission should immediately present a complimentary taxonomy delegated act covering both natural gas and nuclear energy in order to alleviate the uncertainty for investors,” he added.
“Nuclear energy and natural gas are going to have a firm place in the EU energy mix in coming years,” said Karol Galek, a Slovakian secretary of state. “It is therefore necessary to present as soon as possible, the complementary delegated act on taxonomy that takes into account the scientific assessment of nuclear energy and the decarbonisation role of natural gas,” he added.
“Further postponement is unacceptable, it would be contrary to the taxonomy regulation, would not respect the interest of EU citizens and will not bring the required predictability and stability for investors,” Galek stressed.
Greece, Cyprus and Malta are also pushing for the inclusion of gas, but have not thrown their weight behind the inclusion of nuclear.
“Until countries like Cyprus have developed storage solutions [and] interconnections, gas will continue to play a role,” said Natasa Pilides from Cyprus’ government.
By far the smallest group of countries in this debate is those who have spoken out against the inclusion of nuclear energy in the taxonomy. Austria and Luxembourg are the most vocal countries here, with Denmark also cautioning against nuclear.
“We think that it would be wrong to raise nuclear energy as the alternative – it’s not cheap and it’s not secure. The prices for the production of nuclear energy are much higher than that for photovoltaic solar production,” said Gregor Schusterschitz from Austria.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s energy minister, Claude Turmes, highlighted the length of time it would take to build new nuclear power plants, saying these would not come online until around 2035, making them useless as a solution to this year’s energy crisis.
He added that “extending nuclear reactors beyond 40 years only represents 10 billion tonnes oil equivalent, so you can see it’s a highly risky, low impact strategy”.
“With taxonomy, I think we have to be extremely cautious. Because look at the financial markets, look at the investors, look at what’s happening already with manipulation,” he told ministers.
Germany – a long-standing opponent of nuclear power – was much more neutral at the meeting, perhaps owing to its yet-to-be-formed government.
“We need to decrease our energy dependency – people are seeing this as a reason for nuclear power. Obviously we can’t achieve consensus at an EU level on the role of nuclear power,” said Andreas Feicht, German energy and economy minister.
The environmental NGO WWF has also warned against including nuclear energy and fossil gas.
“Nothing would do more to undermine the European Green Deal than to include fossil gas and nuclear in the green taxonomy. At the time of the COP26 summit, institutionalised European greenwashing of this sort would send a totally counterproductive global signal,” said Henry Eviston, spokesperson on sustainable finance for WWF European Policy Office.
Positive signals for nuclear
The European Commission has sent positive signals in recent months about the inclusion of nuclear energy in the taxonomy.
In July, the Commission’s in-house scientific body, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), issued a long-awaited report concluding that nuclear power was safe and therefore eligible for a green label – a finding that was later confirmed by two other expert groups.
The taxonomy is science-based, and the reports will provide a useful shield for the EU executive if it does include nuclear.
Gas is a different matter. A fossil fuel, it needs to be phased out or replaced by green alternatives like hydrogen if Europe wants to reach its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen alluded to this on Twitter: “We also need a stable source, nuclear, and during the transition, gas. This is why we will come forward with our taxonomy proposal,” she said after an EU summit last week where leaders discussed the impact of rising energy prices on Europe’s economy.
This was picked up by the EU’s energy commissioner Kadri Simson at this week’s ministerial meeting.
“President von der Lyon indicated at the European Council her intention to present by the end of the year, the second delegated act under the taxonomy regulation, to address the contribution of natural gas and nuclear energy,” Simson said after the meeting.
At some point, the Commission will have to side with either the pro- or anti-nuclear camp. Ministers at the meeting called on the European Commission to publish the delegated act as soon as possible and the executive is beginning to run out of road to kick the can down.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]