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How Europe risks scoring an own goal on nuclear energy

On July 14, the European Commission took up an extensive policy initiative designed to bring the European Union’s net greenhouse gas emissions down by a minimum of 55% (compared to levels from 1990) within the next decade. This slate of ‘Fit for 55’ reforms will not only expand the deployment of renewable energy sources and promote energy efficiency, but will also speed up the transition to low-emission transportation and overhaul the EU’s emissions trading system to cover new sectors. The Fit for 55 proposals will also extend beyond Europe by slapping a border tax on high-carbon imports.

The European nuclear sector has wholeheartedly endorsed the “Fit for 55” framework and stressed the role nuclear power has to play in helping Europe eliminate carbon emissions from its energy grids. While some energy experts hold out hope that carbon pricing could improve nuclear energy’s competitiveness, environmental groups insist on lumping nuclear power in with fossil fuels, demanding Europe shutter most of its remaining nuclear power plants (NPPs) alongside its coal and gas-fired power plants.

Less than two weeks before the release of “Fit for 55”, two expert committees working on behalf of the European Commission published reports supporting nuclear energy’s role in the EU’s ‘green taxonomy’. That taxonomy, a classification system that establishes which green activities deserve EU funding, will affect European energy policy for decades to come.

The reports – one by the Article 31 Group of Experts on Radiation Protection and another by the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) – are re-assessments of the Joint Research Centre (JRC)’s March study into nuclear energy with respect to the ‘do no significant harm’ criteria. The JRC’s assessment found no “science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the Taxonomy.”

Unhappy with this outcome, the EC sought further opinions. Instead, the review process has mostly confirmed the JRC’s findings, although SCHEER did introduce one wrinkle – namely that “dependence on an operational regulatory framework (as it exists in the EU) is not in itself sufficient to mitigate these impacts, e.g. in mining and milling where the burden of the impacts are felt outside Europe” (emphasis added).

By focusing on the risks from uranium mining outside the EU, SCHEER is reviving an old anti-nuclear argument and perpetuating the notion uranium, as extracted, is highly radioactive and dangerous. In reality, its radioactivity is similar to that of ordinary granite, and uranium miners receive lower radiation doses than airline pilots. Unfortunately, the assessment is only providing additional ammunition for EU nuclear skeptics to force nuclear technology out of the taxonomy for good, endangering both the millions of Europeans employed directly and indirectly through the nuclear industry and the EU’s goal of going carbon-free by 2050.

Given these stakes, the taxonomy amply demonstrates the polarisation that characterises Europe’s nuclear debate. The fault lines have been widening within the EU for the past decade, triggered by Germany’s decision to shutter its reactors following Fukushima, but European opposition to nuclear power has a long tradition. The decision by France to shut down the Fessenheim power plant, for example, followed decades of campaigning by anti-nuclear activists who insisted Fessenheim was located in a seismically active zone along the Rhine, even as the NPP operated safely for over 40 years.

While activists may now be celebrating, Fessenheim’s closure is a major blow to European climate objectives; no other energy source contributes more to reducing CO2 emissions on a large scale than nuclear power. In France, nuclear power accounts for roughly 70% (2019) of the total electricity generation, with about 90% of France’s electricity coming from low-carbon sources. Thanks to its nuclear power plants, France only emits an average of five tons of CO2 per capita every year, compared to 8.5 tons in Germany and 15 tons in the US. Statistics suggest the decision to close Fessenheim will add 10 million tons of CO2 per year to France’s carbon footprint.

Europe’s nuclear sector is clearly in a downward spiral. Germany is in the final stage of its phasing out process, France is taking NPPs offline, and Belgium is following in Berlin’s footsteps, closing the Doel and Tihange NPPs as part of a complete phase-out by 2025. But for certain EU lawmakers, this isn’t going far enough. Looking beyond the bloc’s borders to Belarus, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, Brussels has seen a concerted push to prevent the construction of further NPPs and ban the import of nuclear-generated electricity into the EU altogether.

A case in point is the Astravets plant in Belarus, which was built in close proximity to the Lithuanian border and is the subject of Vilnius’ ire. Lithuania has objected to the NPP from the very beginning, arguing Astravets “poses security threats to the citizens of Lithuania, Belarus, and the European Union.” Several MEPs have supported Vilnius, calling for a Lithuanian law banning the import of electricity from nuclear plants deemed non-compliant with EU safety regulations to be extended Europe-wide.

The main arguments levied against Astravets echo those which upended Fessenheim, namely that the NPP is built in a region of seismic activity and potentially unable to withstand shocks. However, after visiting the site and analyzing its safety measures, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) concluded such fears are unfounded. In their latest peer-reviewed report, released on March 3, ENSREG experts confirmed Astravets addresses all the ‘priority’ nuclear safety issues, ranging from natural hazards and loss of safety functions to severe accident management. The report adds to a string of endorsements from the UN nuclear watchdog IAEA, which has been monitoring the project from the start.

The conflict between political expediency and science, as well as the attempt to impose an anti-nuclear stance beyond the EU’s borders, sends a dangerous signal at a crucial moment for the global fight to curb climate change.

Failing to include nuclear energy in the EU’s taxonomy will make it nigh on impossible for Europe to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050; discouraging even non-EU countries from using nuclear power will only serve to isolate Europe and leave it at a disadvantage in achieving its environmental goals.

Source: New Europe