Nuclear power has 'central role' in Europe's race to net zero

Thierry Breton, EU market chief, weighs in on divisive issue with Brussels set to decide whether atomic plants are green

Environmental campaigners hold a mock funeral in Brussels for the EU taxonomy, a list of climate-friendly investments that could yet include nuclear power. EPA
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Nuclear power “must play a central role” in Europe’s race to carbon neutrality, a senior EU figure has said, taking France’s side of a protracted debate.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner, said atomic power stations had a “huge potential” to meet Europe’s clean energy needs.

The EU is expected to announce shortly whether nuclear energy will be officially badged as climate-friendly.

France is leading the push for nuclear power to be included on a menu of green investments, despite objections from campaigners and countries such as Germany, Austria and Denmark.

Although nuclear plants have a minimal carbon footprint, critics say the risk of an accident and the problems of storing radioactive waste mean they are hardly environmentally friendly.

But addressing a World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris on Tuesday, Mr Breton touted its benefits as a stable energy source that reduces Europe’s reliance on imported fuels at a time when gas prices are high.

Europe’s plan to be the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 will require huge electricity supplies, making nuclear energy indispensable, he said.

“Nuclear can and must play a central role,” said Mr Breton, a former French economy minister.

“In such a transition to a neutral climate, we have to be able to rely on nuclear energy as a major, steady source of decarbonised energy.

“The new geopolitical, industrial reality demands two major assets from Europe: first of all, capacity; secondly, stability. These two prerequisites are what define the nuclear energy sector.”

He said there was a “huge potential in terms of nuclear energy for the production of hydrogen”, another plank of the EU’s climate plans.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced plans on Monday to make clean hydrogen cheaper than the type produced from fossil fuels.

Green brochure

Brussels will try to steer investors towards clean energy by giving them a brochure of climate-friendly options known as the EU taxonomy.

But the list’s publication has been delayed by divisions over nuclear power and natural gas, both regarded by some countries as preferable alternatives to coal and oil.

Campaigners held a mock funeral for the taxonomy in Brussels on Monday, saying it had been undermined by politics and industry lobbying.

The think tank E3G issued a warning that the EU could “give away its climate leadership” if questionable investments appeared on the list.

Including nuclear, or gas, in the taxonomy would be “extremely difficult to reconcile” with what is meant to be science-based guidance, analysts said.

In addition, the divisions in Europe have “eroded its climate leadership on the international stage”, they said.

Germany, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Portugal used this month's Cop26 summit to issue a declaration opposing nuclear power’s entry in the taxonomy.

But France has a coalition of nuclear supporters behind it including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Czech Republic.

France obtains the majority of its electricity from its 56 nuclear power stations. Germany plans to close its last remaining plants next year.

Updated: November 30, 2021, 11:54 AM