As German election nears, EU plays for time on nuclear’s green recognition

Anti-nuclear activists demonstrate during the arrival of the train with six containers (Castor) with nuclear waste at the train station in Biblis, Germany, 04 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

The inclusion of nuclear power in the EU’s green finance taxonomy is “the most likely” outcome in view of the scientific reports submitted to the European Commission in the past months, EU experts believe. But Brussels is not entirely decided yet and is seen playing for time before the German election this month.

Is nuclear electricity a green source of energy or does it pose a “significant harm” to the environment?

This seemingly simple debate, which has divided EU politicians for the last two years, is about to reach its climax with a decision expected in the coming months.

Following positive expert assessments submitted to the European Commission before the summer break, the EU executive is now widely expected to recognise nuclear power as a ‘green’ technology under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy.

“It is very complicated today to scientifically demonstrate that nuclear waste poses a ‘significant’ environmental problem that cannot be overcome,” said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, a researcher and director at the Jacques Delors Institute’s energy centre.

The Commission’s in-house scientific body, the Joint Research Centre, released a much-awaited report on nuclear power on 2 April. 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.

These conclusions were subsequently backed by two other EU bodies, the Euratom Article 31 expert group and the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER).

“In view of all this, what seems to me the most likely indeed is that the Commission will make a proposal in favour of the integration of nuclear energy within the framework of the taxonomy,” Pellerin-Carlin said.

“That would be consistent with the dynamics of the past few months,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

Diplomats and industry lobbyists consulted by EURACTIV concurred: the most likely outcome is that European Commission will table a proposal in the coming months, possibly as late as November or December, after the formation of the new German government.

“From what we understand, the [proposal] itself will likely come out around October–December this year,” said Jessica Johnson, communications director at Foratom, the trade association representing the nuclear industry in Brussels.

An EU diplomat, for his part, spoke of “September-November”.

Researcher: Brussels is paving the way for nuclear power’s green revival

In all likelihood, the European Commission will table a proposal in the coming months to include nuclear energy in the EU’s green finance taxonomy, said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, a researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute. But it is probably waiting for the outcome of the German elections before making a move, he suggested.

German political hurdles

The recognition of nuclear power as a ‘green’ source of energy is not a foregone conclusion though, and the decision could still go either way because of continued opposition to nuclear in Germany and four other EU member states.

In July, Germany’s environment minister Svenja Schulze sent a letter to the Commission – also signed by her counterparts in Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Spain – asking for nuclear to be kept out of the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

The topic is politically sensitive in Germany, which is about to complete its nuclear phase-out next year. Any move by the European Commission to label the energy source as ‘green’ is likely to pollute the political debate ahead of the election on 26 September.

“In Germany, the anti-nuclear movement is deeply rooted and radical,” said Pellerin-Carlin, who cited demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s, which sometimes turned violent.

“Assuming that the Commission already knows it is going to propose including nuclear in the taxonomy, it would indeed be in its own interest to wait for the outcome of the German elections,” he told EURACTIV.

Germany leads call to keep nuclear out of EU green finance taxonomy

A group of five EU member states led by Germany have sent a letter to the European Commission asking for nuclear energy to be kept out of the EU’s green finance taxonomy.

From the Commission’s point of view, the German election may not be the biggest source of worry, though.

In the pro-nuclear camp, positions are possibly even more entrenched, with France leading a coalition of seven pro-nuclear countries, which also includes Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

“France will fight for nuclear to be considered as a decarbonised energy source in Europe,” said the country’s economy minister Bruno Le Maire.

“I don’t want there to be any doubts about this. We will lead this fight with the greatest determination,” he said in April.

“We need nuclear to succeed in the ecological transition. We need nuclear power to have carbon-free electricity available at low cost,” the French minister stressed.

French elections looming large

Seen from Brussels, the political context in France may actually appear more daunting than the German one.

With the presidential election coming up next April, a negative decision on nuclear risks triggering a political backlash in France, just as the country prepares to take the rotating EU Council Presidency in January.

“It would fuel French political attacks on ‘Brussels’” from a wide range of parties, Pellerin-Carlin said. In turn, this would undermine Emmanuel Macron’s re-election campaign because the French president has always positioned himself as a convinced pro-European.

“From a political point of view, the debate on nuclear power and the taxonomy risks raising questions about Macron’s European record and Europe’s place in France,” he said.

In fact, the European Commission has no perfect solution when it comes to nuclear power’s handling under the taxonomy, Pellerin-Carlin said. While a green label for nuclear would harm the credibility of the taxonomy in the eyes of German, Austrian or Italian investors, financiers in the US, Australia, China or Canada all view nuclear power as green, he remarked.

“From this point of view, there is no good choice on nuclear – whether the Commission decides to include it or not in the taxonomy, there are only bad options.”

Decision time

At some point, however, the EU executive will have to make up its mind and table a proposal. And the only objective criteria it can refer to are the scientific studies it commissioned to its expert groups.

And those were unambiguous: “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 Joint Research Centre (JRC) said in its report.

For supporters of nuclear power, this should be enough to close the debate.

“The scientific assessment has now been completed and all doubts have been removed,” said Erkki Maillard, senior vice-president for EU affairs at EDF, the French state-owned electricity company.

“The Commission must now move forward and address nuclear power through objective technical criteria and avoid any discriminatory approach,” Maillard told EURACTIV.

Supporters also insist that, despite concerns over radioactive waste, nuclear power remains a low-carbon source of energy, which accounted for 25% of the EU’s electricity production in 2020. Without nuclear, the EU would shoot itself in the foot by making its climate neutrality goal much harder to attain, they argue.

That argument is also gaining traction in the European Parliament. On 8 July, a cross-party group of 86 MEPs wrote a letter to the European Commission asking the EU to encourage investments in nuclear power as part of the taxonomy.

“We cannot afford to ignore any energy sources that have the prerequisites to make a positive contribution on the path towards climate neutrality,” the MEPs wrote.

“That nuclear power is such a kind of energy source is, to us, obvious.”

But the anti-nuclear camp has not given up just yet. And the most prominent critic is the German environment ministry, which appointed its own expert group to review the EU’s JRC study.

In their conclusions, published on 14 July, the German experts slammed the JRC report for ignoring entire subject areas like the possibility of a nuclear accident.

“For example, the effects of severe accidents on the environment are not included when assessing whether to include nuclear energy in the taxonomy register – yet they have occurred several times over the last few decades,” the report noted. “This raises the question of whether the JRC has selected too narrow a framework of observation,” it added.

The German experts also remarked that the JRC mentions topics like radioactive waste disposal, but then fails to consider them in more detail.

“The JRC itself says that the primary and best waste management strategy is not to generate any radioactive waste in the first place. However, this assessment is not consistently applied within the report,” the German experts wrote.

According to them, “the JRC Report is therefore incomplete and fails to comprehensively assess the sustainability of using nuclear energy.”

A pro-nuclear Commission

So what will the Commission now do?

According to Pellerin-Carlin, the various scientific reports have clearly paved the way for the Commission to label nuclear as ‘green’.

“The current dynamics lead me to think that the Commission will make a proposal in this direction,” he told EURACTIV. “According to expert reports that have been issued, there is not enough evidence that waste is a problem that causes ‘significant’ harm to the environment,” he said.

Besides, the European Commission itself is seen as broadly pro-nuclear. “Within the Commission, President Ursula von der Leyen is not known for taking anti-nuclear positions, unlike many German politicians,” Pellerin-Carlin pointed out.

“In fact, looking at the College of Commissioners, I don’t see anyone who is fiercely anti-nuclear,” he added, saying a majority of Commissioners “have accepted nuclear power as a transitional energy source, and in any case as a necessary evil” in the energy transition, while coal is being phased out.

“And then within the Commission, there is Thierry Breton, who is a key figure on this subject, and who somewhat exceeds his prerogatives as Internal Market Commissioner by campaigning publicly in favour of nuclear power.”

Throwing gas into the mix

The outcome of the Commission’s thinking may be slightly different though, and could also incorporate natural gas into the mix.

In its April communication on the taxonomy, the EU executive said it “will adopt a complementary delegated act” that will cover nuclear energy subject to the completion of the various EU scientific assessments. “This complementary Delegated Act will also cover natural gas and related technologies as transitional activity,” the Commission added.

And with Germany and Poland keen to see gas included in the taxonomy as a “transition” technology, a grand bargain could be in the making that would see both nuclear and gas win some kind of recognition in the EU’s transition to climate neutrality.

Kadri Simson, the EU’s Energy Commissioner, alluded to this in her written answer to a question from a German MEP, Engin Eroglu.

“Any further decision regarding nuclear energy in the EU Taxonomy…. could potentially be either as part of a complementary delegated act of the EU Taxonomy Regulation or a separate legislative proposal recognising activities notably in the energy sector for their important contribution to decarbonisation and towards climate neutrality throughout the current decade,” she wrote.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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