France is leading a push to put nuclear power at the heart of the EU’s climate plans, exposing a rift in Europe over the future of splitting atoms.
A decision is looming in Brussels on whether nuclear energy will be classed as a sustainable fuel, putting it on a menu of climate-friendly options which investors will be encouraged to choose from.
Ministers from 10 countries, including nuclear-reliant France, weighed in on one side of the debate this week with a letter to EU leaders that said atomic energy “must be part of the solution”.
President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile used the launch of his France 2030 agenda to call for a new generation of nuclear reactors, funded by €1 billion ($1.16bn) of public money.
Supporters of nuclear power say it is reliable, carbon-free and reduces Europe’s reliance on energy imports, at a time when gas prices are soaring.
But fission has many critics in Europe, most notably Germany, which was spooked by the 2011 Fukushima disaster into closing all its plants by next year.
Austria opposes nuclear power and has lobbied its neighbours, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to switch off plants near its borders. Belgium plans to turn its back on nuclear by 2025.
France, by contrast, generates most of its electricity from its 56 nuclear plants, and Mr Macron has put the fuel at the heart of his modernisation plans.
“The number one objective is to develop small, innovative nuclear reactors in France by 2030, with better waste management,” he said.
“We are in luck – it is our historical model, the country’s nuclear power installations are already in place.”
EU green list
While Mr Macron builds reactors at home, French ministers are lobbying abroad for Europe to give nuclear power the thumbs-up.
The EU decision will not dictate whether countries can or cannot use nuclear power, which is a matter for national governments.
But its inclusion on the green list would signal that companies should consider investing in nuclear energy – especially since some will have to disclose how far they are from ordering from the EU’s green brochure.
It matters politically because a nod of approval from Brussels would bolster pro-nuclear governments such as France, said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, an energy expert at the Jacques Delors Institute.
“Most of the interest from the French government’s perspective is political,” he told The National. “It’s not that including nuclear as a green investment would really help them from an economic perspective.
“The greatest benefit would be that they could use that as saying, wow, we’ve got scientific proof that nuclear is green.”
Less contentious items such as wind power are already on the list, known as the EU taxonomy. A decision on nuclear was delayed, but is expected soon.
The test is whether nuclear power does “no significant harm”, but different countries disagree over whether this is the case.
Nuclear plants produce few of the CO2 emissions that will be a focus of the Cop26 summit. But they generate radioactive waste that lingers for tens of thousands of years. There is always the risk of an accident such as Chernobyl or Fukushima.
Pro-nuclear countries such as France, Poland and Hungary say the industry is heavily regulated and has proved its safety in Europe over many decades.
In their letter this week, they described nuclear plants as a stable energy source that created jobs and strengthened Europe’s energy independence.
“Nuclear power must be treated equally to all other low-carbon energy sources,” they said. “To win the climate battle, we need nuclear power. It is, for us all, a crucial and reliable asset for a low-carbon future.”
Nuclear plants produced about a quarter of the EU’s electricity in 2019, although only 13 of 27 countries had operational reactors.
They included Germany, which has six plants still running. Half will be switched off this year, with the last three scheduled to close in 2022.
In a position paper in March, Germany’s Environment Ministry said the problems of nuclear waste storage meant it could not be considered sustainable.
Critics say Germany’s nuclear exit is expensive and has increased the country’s reliance on coal and gas.
But there is no sign that the next German government will change course: of the three parties in coalition talks, two are enthusiastic supporters of the nuclear exit and the other accepts it as a done deal.
Austria recently said that nuclear power could not legally be put on the EU list because of the risks associated with uranium mining, long-term storage and nuclear accidents.
Any move “that somehow included nuclear power in the European taxonomy would be open to legal challenge before the EU courts”, a report said.
There is a potential route to a compromise, although one that would enrage environmental groups: including natural gas on the list as well as nuclear.
France has signalled it is open to this, and Germany might feel compelled to agree to the bargain because of its large gas lobby, Mr Pellerin-Carlin said.
He said the political wrangling could undermine the credibility of the list, which was meant to be a guide for companies and prevent them from misleading customers about their green investments.
“It became the vehicle for a wider, highly politicised debate on the role of nuclear and gas in the transition,” Mr Pellerin-Carlin said.