The Green Brief: Europe’s anti-nuclear madness

Green brief

Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

The European Commission’s in-house scientific body, the Joint Research Centre, released its much-awaited report on nuclear power on Friday 2 April, just before the Easter break.

Its conclusions were clear: nuclear power is a safe, low-carbon energy source comparable to wind and hydropower, and as such, it qualifies for a green investment label under the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

All clear for a nuclear renaissance in Europe, then? No. First, the fundamental issues with nuclear remain. Europe’s ageing fleet of nuclear plants needs to be replaced, but with renewables now clearly winning the race for the cheapest kilowatt-hour on the market, governments are reasonably turning to wind and solar as a more affordable source of low-carbon electricity.

In France, Britain and Finland, construction of next generation EPR nuclear reactors have experienced years of delays and ballooning costs, making nuclear unattractive for governments seeking a quick clean energy fix. And the safe disposal of nuclear waste remains a nagging and costly issue for the industry.

Still, nuclear has a lot going for it. In Europe, the climate crisis has drawn attention to existing nuclear plants as an essential part of the EU’s low-carbon energy mix. Currently, nuclear is responsible for more than 26% of Europe’s electricity production, way ahead of wind (13%), hydro (12%) and solar (4%), but still behind fossil fuels like coal and gas (43%).

And as the EU embarks on a mission to cut emissions down to net zero by 2050, the atom is now firmly back at the top of the political agenda, with countries like Poland looking to nuclear as a way of ending their reliance on coal.

Against this backdrop, the continued opposition to nuclear by countries like Germany and Austria looks misguided at best.

For sure, nuclear won’t be a silver bullet against climate change. But as Europe – and indeed the world – enters a race against time to tackle the climate emergency, shunning nuclear from our energy mix looks outright dangerous.

By deciding to phase out nuclear prematurely 10 years ago – before it even ended its reliance on coal – Germany has demonstrated the absurdity of its anti-nuclear stance. The result is well-known and should serve as a lesson for others: Germany is now importing more fossil gas while delaying its coal phase-out to 2038 and making its climate targets harder to attain.

The JRC report is unlikely to remove opposition to nuclear. In countries like Germany and Austria, the aversion to nuclear is deeply entrenched and finds its roots in the 1960s anti-war movement borne out of the Second World War. This cultural opposition to nuclear won’t go away simply because of a report in Brussels.

But the climate emergency should definitely prompt a rethink of nuclear power in Europe. In Finland, the Greens have taken a pragmatic stance, saying they would not oppose small nuclear reactors as a means of combating climate change.

Others should take note. Denying Europe a safe and low-carbon energy source at a time of climate emergency while desperately trying to phase out coal is not only irresponsible, it’s pure folly.

This week’s top stories

News from the capitals

TALLINN | RIGA | VILNIUS. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all currently part of the Russian electricity network since gaining independence in the early 90s, are set to join the Continental Europe electricity network in early 2026. This means they will soon be leaving the Russian power grid altogether. Read more.

WARSAW. Polish state-backed oil refiner PKN Orlen said a court decision to suspend the competition watchdog UOKiK from approving its takeover of newspaper publisher Polska Press would have no impact on its bid because the deal has been completed. Read more.

PRAGUE. Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlíček on Monday (12 April) announced the establishment of a new government commission that will be tasked with calculating the European Green Deal’s impact on the Czech Republic. Read more.

HELSINKI | OSLO. Finnish national carrier Finnair and Norwegian regional airliner Widerøe have announced their intention to purchase battery-powered electric planes, giving credibility to a Nordic initiative that is attempting to drive forward the development of electric aircraft. Read more.

BELGRADE. Several thousand citizens took part in a rally on Saturday (10 April) in the Serbian capital, dubbed The Eco Uprising. The demonstration was organised by  Defend the Rivers of Stara (Old) Planina group, named after the Balkan Mountain that runs partly through south-east Serbia. Read more.

ZAGREB. Croatia’s recovery plan envisages projects worth €6.5 billion, including 12% for the reconstruction of buildings. The National Recovery and Resilience Plan, a summary of which was presented at a government meeting on Thursday (1 April), envisages projects worth HRK 49.08 billion (€6.5 billion) to cover six key areas. Read more.

PRAGUE. After months of preparations behind closed doors, the Czech national recovery plan was finally published by the industry and trade ministry at the end of March. Most funds will go to transport infrastructure. The government will also continue to support the thermal insulation of buildings and energy efficiency schemes. However, the document is not as detailed as it should be, Czech MEP Luděk Niedermayer (EPP) warned. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. A Slovak petition entitled “Climate Needs You”, calling for the government to declare a state of climate emergency, has been signed by more than 128,000 people, including various politicians and President Zuzana Čaputová. However, it was not backed by the parliament, which ended up only agreeing on a non-binding statement, advising the government not to support fossil fuel-based projects. Read more.

BERLIN. Germany’s Transatlantic Coordinator Peter Beyer on Wednesday (31 Mach) called for a construction moratorium on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in a bid to repair transatlantic relations. Read more.

BELGRADE. Serbian commerce has suffered $6 billion worth in losses due to extreme weather since 2000, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) representative in Serbia, Francine Pickup. Unless steps and activities are implemented towards preventing weather extremes, it could lose as much again by the end of this decade. Read more.

News in brief

Taxonomy tug of war. The latest in the green finance taxonomy saga saw two letters on the role of gas drop onto the Commission’s desk. The first, from socialist (S&D) MEPs Simona Bonafè and Paul Tang, voiced concerns around the classification of investments in certain gas-powered heat and power plants and lobbying around nuclear power. They also warned that the criteria for bioenergy risks being outdated.

A very different letter came from Polish MEPs. Jerzy Buzek from the centre-right EPP and Bogdan Rzońca from the conservative ECR group wrote that “it is key to acknowledge the role of gaseous fuels”, particularly taking into account the different stages of transition in different member states. They called for the Commission to set the proposed emission performance standard – currently at 100g CO2/kWh – at a “technically feasible” level for state of the art gas generation and also called for the “do no significant harm” benchmark to be set at a “realistic” 380g CO2/kWh. When it comes to the emission threshold for hydrogen production, the letter calls on the Commission to adopt a technological neutral approach, meaning no exclusion a priori for hydrogen produced from fossil gas when carbon sequestration is applied. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Hydrogen blending with gas, like ‘mixing champagne with lemonade’. Luxembourg’s energy minister, Claude Turmes, strongly opposed blending gas at a press conference on 7 April, saying “This idea to mix very expensive champagne with cheap lemonade in a gas pipeline, that doesn’t make any sense because where we need the most green hydrogen is in industry and it is the chemical property of hydrogen which we need.”

His comments followed the publication of a report showing that European companies were planning to build worth €89 billion of new gas infrastructure, meaning the EU is likely to either miss its climate targets or strand billions of euros worth of assets.

Turmes also gave insights into the French position on gas and nuclear in the taxonomy, noting that France did not sign a letter asking the EU executive to keep gas out of the EU’s green finance rules. The letter was signed by the governments of Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain. According to Turmes, some in the French government argue that throwing their weight behind gas could open the door for other countries to back the inclusion of nuclear in the taxonomy, he explained.

Gas vs electricity. Elsewhere, the taxonomy tug of war continued with trade association Eurelectric warning about the unequal treatment for gas and electricity under the latest version of the revised taxonomy delegated act. 

In the latest draft, gas infrastructure is considered as “substantially contributing to climate change mitigation” while electricity infrastructure is only considered as an “enabling” technology, Eurelectric says. In other words, gas infrastructure is “favoured” compared to electricity infrastructure, the trade association argues, warning this goes against the Commission’s objective to double the share of electricity in Europe’s energy mix by 2050. 

In addition, power distribution networks at local level are totally excluded from the taxonomy, which only considers investments into transmission grids (i.e.: high-voltage power lines). According to Eurelectric, this also contradicts the objective of electrification. More here. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com).

The slow pace of electrification is also a concern for the wind industry, which reiterated complaints about barriers to permitting for new wind farms across Europe. EU countries built a record 13 GW of new wind farms in 2020, which is good but not enough to reach the bloc’s updated 2030 climate targets, says trade association WindEurope. To reach its 55% emission reduction goal for 2030, the EU would need to build around 27 GW a year, WindEurope says.

“The technology is available. So is the money. But the right policies are missing, notably on the permitting of new farms where rules and procedures are too complex. The revision of the EU Renewables Directive in the ‘Fit for 55’ package needs to tackle this,” said Giles Dickson, CEO of WindEurope. Read the full report here (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Europe is also lagging behind when it comes to infrastructure for charging electric vehicles, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors, published on Tuesday (13 April). Despite successes such as in promoting a common EU plug standard, the EU is still a long way off its Green Deal target of 1 million charging points by 2025, and it lacks an overall strategic roadmap for electro-mobility, the auditors said. More here.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is moving forward with plans to support the hydrogen economy. On Monday (12 April), the EU executive invited all 1,000+ members of the European Hydrogen Alliance to submit renewable and low-carbon hydrogen projects. “This call is an important step forward in the work of the Alliance. It will help build the project pipeline and assess and address gaps and bottlenecks in the clean hydrogen value chain,” said Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton

Under the hydrogen strategy, the EU aims to scale up clean hydrogen in Europe, with 6GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and 1 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2024, increasing to 40GW and 10 million tonnes by 2030. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

‘Gastivists’ April Fools guerrilla campaign. Over 100 posters, showing spoof ads from companies, like Shell and Iberdrola, appeared in bus stops around Europe on April Fools Day as part of a guerrilla campaign, calling out misleading marketing and lobbying around fossil gas.

“We want everyone to know veracious misinformation efforts by fossil gas lobby groups such as, GasforClimate2050, Eurogas, GasNaturally, and Entsog so that peopleand politicians are well aware that this industry is literally selling methane, a supercharged greenhouse gas, and branding it as a climate solution!” said Camille Tivists, one of the local activists.

“To achieve our climate neutrality goal, we need to radically shift our economy and cut all direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels. However, the fossil fuel lobbies continue to undermine our objectives, by pretending that it is possible to develop ‘clean’ or ‘transitional’ gas,” said Marie Toussaint, a Green Member of the European Parliament. See the campaign material here (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Study: Loss of Arctic sea-ice fuels extreme snowfall in Europe. The loss of Arctic sea-ice can fuel extreme snow in Europe, found a report published in Nature Geoscience. It analysed the ‘Beast from the East’ in 2018 – which cost the UK alone £1 billion per day in losses – and found that sea-ice loss in the Barents Sea potentially supplied up to 88% of the snow that fell over northern Europe.

“What we’re finding is that sea ice is effectively a lid on the ocean. And with its long-term removal across the Arctic since the 1970s, we’re seeing increasing amounts of moisture enter the atmosphere during winter, which directly impacts our weather further south, causing extreme heavy snowfalls,” said Hannah Bailey, lead author of the study. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Fossil banks. 61% of directors in 15 major banks across Europe, including ABN Amro, Lloyds, and HSBC and Swiss credit, have previously held positions with polluting companies, with 34% of those still holding those roles, according to analysis by Desmog, an investigative group, looking at environmental issues.

The ties are “predictable, yet shocking”, said Geoffrey Supran, research associate at the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, adding, “Having its fingers in all the pies allows the fossil fuel industry to quietly put its thumb on the scales of institutional decision making, helping delay action and protect the status quo.” Read the full analysis here (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Upcoming events

29 APRIL: Blue economy: the potential of our oceans to contribute to a green recovery. According to OECD projections, by 2030, the “Blue Economy” could outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. Join our event to look at how a sector with a turnover of €750 billion that currently employs 5 million people in Europe presents important potential in terms of both its contribution to a green recovery and the European Green Deal goals. Register here

4 MAY: The role of gas in Europe’s future energy mix and the transition to zero carbon of Europe’s power sector. The transition towards a net zero greenhouse gas economy puts the power sector in the spotlight. While the carbon intensity of power across the EU has fallen significantly, the situation in Europe is diverse and this pace must increase. Can gas – renewable or abated through CCS – be the optimal complementary energy technology to balance intermittent renewable electricity such as wind and solar in the coming decades? And how can we ensure enough funding for the different technologies for decarbonisation? Join this EURACTIV debate to discuss. Register here

On our radar

  • 21 APRIL: Commission expected to table its updated draft delegated act under the green finance taxonomy, setting out detailed criteria for what constitutes a “sustainable” investment in the EU.
  • 22 APRIL: Leaders’ Climate Summit. On the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement opening for signatures, the US will host a climate conference convening the leaders of major economies. The US is also expected to announce its updated Paris commitment around this meeting.
  • MAY (date tbc): Commission to publish zero-pollution action plan for water, air and soil as part of the European Green Deal.
  • 21 JUNE: Environment council. Ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the climate adaptation strategy.
  • JUNE (date tbc): Fit for 55 package. The Commission is expected to table a huge package of green legislation in June, including a revision of the renewable energy directive, a revision of the emissions trading scheme and our first glimpse at a carbon border adjustment mechanism.

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