The Council of EU member states and the European Parliament agreed on Tuesday (6 February) to label nuclear power as a strategic technology for the EU’s decarbonisation, following months of intense negotiations in Brussels over the Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA).
Presented by the European Commission in March 2023, the NZIA aims to speed up the deployment of technologies that can contribute to meeting the EU’s net-zero emissions target.
It came in response to the massive US green subsidy programme, the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as long-standing Chinese efforts to become global leaders in the manufacturing of clean technologies like batteries, heat pumps and solar panels.
To this end, the NZIA aims to accelerate permitting procedures for industrial production sites involved in the manufacturing of components needed for renewable energy technologies, but also for nuclear power.
Meeting in “trilogues”, negotiators from the Parliament, the Council, and the European Commission confirmed on Tuesday the “strategic” nature of projects relating to nuclear energy, which are included in a single list of net-zero technologies that will benefit from the NZIA.
The text is “a mix of the two mandates [adopted by the Council and Parliament], with a more comprehensive list than what was proposed by the member states”, explained French MEP Christophe Grudler who took part in the talks for the centrist Renew Europe group in Parliament.
The agreement encompasses tried and tested nuclear technologies as well as future third and fourth generation ones, i.e. small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced nuclear reactors (AMRs). Their fuel cycles are also included in the text.
“The message is clear: the EU recognises that we need nuclear power to achieve the objectives of the Green Deal,” the French MEP told Euractiv.
Concretely, this means that factories producing components for these technologies will benefit from simplified permitting procedures, with deadlines ranging from 18 to 12 months for bigger projects and 12 to nine months for smaller ones.
The development of the infrastructure needed to expand nuclear energy in Europe will also be facilitated by criteria for prioritising these projects in public procurements.
Each EU country will be sovereign in defining the projects that will be considered strategic on its territory, and benefit from faster permitting and simplified administrative rules.
As a result, “the two types of energy [renewable and nuclear] are finally being treated equally as part of the reindustrialisation process,” Grudler rejoiced.
This was not a foregone conclusion. In its March proposal, the European Commission presented two lists of “green” technologies – one called “strategic” and a “net-zero” list with fewer advantages.
But nuclear technologies only appeared in the “net zero” list, denying them the “strategic” status. Moreover, only third- and fourth-generation nuclear reactors were included, but not existing ones.
The situation caused uproar among advocates of nuclear power after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen publicly insisted that nuclear power was not strategic. In Paris, these were dismissed as “unfortunate” comments.
“The main thing is for nuclear power to be in the text. And it is,” Grudler told Euractiv at the time, saying he was “confident” about future developments in the parliamentary debates.
The inclusion of nuclear power in Parliament was not a done deal either.
After much back and forth, nuclear power was finally included in the single list of 17 technologies proposed in November by the text’s rapporteur, German MEP Christian Ehler (European People’s Party – EPP).
In addition, all nuclear technologies were covered: existing and future ones, fission, fusion as well as the fuel cycle.
The Council, for its part, stuck with the two lists approach, placing fission and the fuel cycle in the “strategic” list, while other nuclear technologies were placed in the “net zero” list.
France welcomed this approach, contrary to Germany, Austria and Luxembourg.
Ultimately, after the final interinstitutional negotiations (trilogues), the logic of the single list was retained.
Unsurprisingly, environmental groups were not happy with the outcome. German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe called the agreement “a dubious compromise in favour of expensive, high-risk technologies”.
With the inclusion of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS), technologies such as wind and solar power “are under threat”, it said.