LEAK: EU experts to say nuclear power qualifies for green investment label

An exterior view of a part of the nuclear power plant of energy company RWE in Biblis, Germany. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

Experts tasked with assessing whether the European Union should label nuclear power as a green investment will say that the fuel qualifies as sustainable, according to a leaked document.

The European Commission is attempting to finish its sustainable finance taxonomy, which will decide which economic activities can be labelled as a sustainable investment in the EU, based on whether they meet strict environmental criteria.

EU expert advisors last year split over whether nuclear power deserved a green label, recognising that while it produces very low planet-warming CO2 emissions, more analysis was needed on the environmental impact of radioactive waste disposal.

The Commission asked the Joint Research Centre (JRC), its scientific expert arm, to report on the issue.

A draft of the JRC report, seen by EURACTIV and other media outlets and due to be published this week, said nuclear deserves a green label.

“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,” the report said.

Storage of nuclear waste in deep geologic formations is deemed “appropriate and safe,” it added, although it admitted that “no long-term operational experience is presently available as technologies and solutions are still in demonstration and testing phase”.

However, the report cited countries including France, Sweden and Finland which are “in an advanced stage of implementation of their national deep geological disposal facilities,” saying those are “expected to start operation within the present decade.”

“For high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel, there is a broad consensus amongst the scientific, technological and regulatory communities that final disposal in deep geological repositories is the most effective and safest feasible solution which can ensure that no significant harm is caused to human life and the environment for the required timespan,” the report says.

And although severe nuclear accidents “cannot be ruled out with 100% certainty,” they are “events with extremely low probability,” the report added, pointing out that only third generation reactors are now being commissioned worldwide in the last 15 years after the Chernobyl disaster.

“The fatality rates characterising state-of-the art [third generation nuclear power plants] are the lowest of all the electricity generation technologies,” the report concludes.

Further expert advice

Two expert committees will now scrutinise the JRC’s findings for three months, before the Commission takes a final decision.

“This is one step in the process,” a Commission spokesperson reminded EURACTIV, saying the JRC report will now 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 the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks.

The evaluation will be “rigorous,” the spokesperson added, saying “the credibility of this assessment is crucial.”

EU countries are split over nuclear. Ahead of an EU summit last week, a group of seven countries including France, Hungary, and Poland urged the Commission to support nuclear in policies, including the taxonomy.

Other states including Austria, and some environmental groups, oppose the fuel, pointing to its hazardous waste and the delays and spiralling costs of recent projects.

“The nuclear industry is desperate for funds as nuclear power is too expensive and new projects are evaporating,” said Greenpeace EU policy adviser Silvia Pastorelli.

Foratom, the nuclear power industry lobby group, welcomed the report, saying “it makes it clear that nuclear does not cause more harm to human health nor the environment than any other power-producing technology which is currently considered as sustainable under the taxonomy.” 

“Now that this assessment is available, we hope that the Commission will quickly come forward with a clear indication as to how and when it will include nuclear under the taxonomy,” said Foratom director general Yves Desbazeille.

“We trust the ongoing process to issue a report based on scientific bases and caution against any interference that could jeopardize a timely outcome,” added Erkki Maillard, senior vice-president for EU affairs at EDF, the French electricity company.

Nuclear faces ‘a lot of uncertainty’ as EU green evaluation looms

The industry is growing increasingly nervous about European Commission plans to evaluate the safety of radioactive waste handling as an expert report is expected next month on how to classify nuclear energy under the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

JRC critique

Greenpeace meanwhile questioned the independence of the JRC report, saying it is “a structurally pro-nuclear Commission service” that was initially set up in 1957 under Article 8 of the Euratom treaty, to “create the conditions necessary for the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries”.

And although the JRC has since branched out into other areas, Greenpeace claims that “nuclear research still represents 25% of its activity,” with Euratom providing €532 million to the JRC for the period 2021-2025.

The European Commission however brushed aside those claims, saying the JRC has acquired  “extensive technical expertise on nuclear energy” since its creation in 1957. “The JRC has been requested to deliver a thorough, independent evidence-based report on Nuclear energy and technology, which, together with the two expert Committees’ opinions, will ensure a rigorous process where all relevant perspectives and facts are considered,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

EU countries are also split over how the taxonomy should treat investments in natural gas.

After a plan to exclude gas faced push back from pro-gas countries, the Commission this month drafted plans to label some gas as sustainable – splintering countries between those who support the fuel as an alternative to more-polluting coal, and those who say new gas plants risk locking in emissions for decades, thwarting climate goals.

Macron, Orban urge EU to 'actively support' nuclear power

A group of seven European leaders fronted by French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the European Commission to stop hindering nuclear power and consider ways of bringing atomic energy into the EU’s green finance rule book ahead of an EU summit on Thursday (25 March).

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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