EU experts to assess nuclear power’s green credentials

A file photo shows France's oldest nuclear power plant in Fessenheim, situated in the country's north-east near the German border. Operations to switch off the plant have started on 29 June, according to energy company EDF, which operates the power station. [EPA-EFE/CHRISTOPHE KARABA]

The European Commission has mandated its in-house research body, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), to assess whether nuclear power should be considered as a “green” technology under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy.

Should nuclear power be considered “green” because it is a low-carbon source of energy? Or does the issue of radioactive waste automatically disqualify it from the EU’s green label because of the “do no significant harm” principle?

This question, seemingly simple at first, has vexed experts advising the European Commission on a sustainable finance ‘taxonomy’, which is aimed at guiding private investors looking to buy clean technology stocks.

France and Britain have previously blocked an agreement on the EU’s green finance taxonomy, arguing it failed to recognise the environmental benefits of nuclear power, which emits almost no greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

As EU member states and Parliament proved unable to draw a line in the sand, the Commission has decided to call upon a special expert group to investigate the matter and submit a report in 2021.

“After weighing up the different options, the Commission has decided to request the [Commission’s] Joint Research Centre to draft a technical report on the ‘do no significant harm’ aspects of nuclear energy,” the EU executive explains in a document put online on 10 June.

“The Commission considers that the credibility of this assessment is crucial. It should be scientifically rigorous, transparent and bring together a balanced set of views. It should also reflect the principle of technological neutrality, as included in the Taxonomy Regulation,” the document says.

EU seals deal on green finance in breakthrough for climate goals

Lawmakers in the European Parliament have approved a compromise on the EU’s proposed sustainable finance rulebook, ending a bitter fight with EU member states on whether to recognise nuclear power as “green”.

The move was welcomed by Foratom, the nuclear industry association. “This shows that they have taken recommendations that nuclear be assessed by scientific experts seriously,” said Yves Desbazeille, director general at Foratom.

“This is something which many stakeholders – including industry, several member states and MEPs – have been calling for over the past year,” Desbazeille said in a statement.

The report by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) will itself be reviewed by experts on radiation protection and waste management under Article 31 of the Euratom Treaty, as well as by experts on environmental impacts from an equivalent Commission environmental group or committee, the Commission indicated.

However, “this process is not expected to conclude before the beginning of 2021,” the Commission added, saying work in the meantime will continue on the assessment of other “green” technologies under the sustainable finance taxonomy.

This is causing worries in the nuclear industry. “Foratom regrets the fact that the assessment will not be ready in time,” Desbazeille said.

“We would recommend that the evaluation of the energy sector should be postponed until the assessment of nuclear is complete. Otherwise, it risks distorting the market by enabling some technologies to access relevant funds before others”.

Nuclear power is not the only energy technology that is causing controversy as part of EU talks on sustainable finance. Natural gas has also caused heated debates, although EU legislators now seem ready to include it as a “transition” technology under the green finance rulebook.

Pascal Canfin: On gas and nuclear, EU must apply green finance taxonomy

Whether in the European recovery plan or the just transition fund, Pascal Canfin says he is in favour of applying the EU sustainable finance taxonomy, which allows drawing a line between gas projects that merit public funding and those that don’t.

Edited by Samuel Stolton

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