Nuclear opponents prepare last stand against EU's 'greenwashing' plans

Legal challenge on the table after Brussels proposed classification of reactors as sustainable

Environmental activists protest against the use of gas and nuclear energy outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. EPA
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Europe’s nuclear energy sceptics are mounting a last stand against the EU’s controversial plans to classify atom-splitting reactors as environmentally friendly.

With only a week until the EU’s deadline for objections, lawyers have been summoned to prepare for a possible court battle while members of the European Parliament try to rally last-ditch opposition.

The EU’s plan would see nuclear plants included on a list of climate-friendly investments — meaning companies which put their money into reactors could consider themselves as environmentally conscious.

Brussels angered its critics further by catching activists off guard with a New Year’s Day announcement and setting a January 12 cut-off for consultations.

The legal route

Anti-nuclear Austria, which described the EU’s proposals as a dangerous act of greenwashing, said it would complain to European courts if the draft plans go ahead.

Austria has previously argued that a green badge for nuclear energy is unlawful, because the risks of an accident and the problems of storing radioactive waste mean the necessary sustainability criteria are breached.

Luxembourg is another country considering its next move after the EU’s plans were published over the holidays, a move it described as a provocation.

But Germany, a leading player in the anti-nuclear cause, which switched off three of its last six reactors last week, has declined to support a legal challenge.

Critics of nuclear power say the risks of an accident and problems of storing radioactive waste mean it is not climate-friendly. AP

Steffen Hebestreit, the German government’s chief spokesman, said Berlin agreed that the EU’s move was wrong but did not see how it could be overturned in the courts.

A lawsuit could only succeed if the European Commission was acting beyond its powers, and on that point Brussels “appears to be legally on safe ground”, he said.

Germany has no objection to the inclusion of natural gas on the EU’s green list, a move which further angered environmental campaigners. Berlin expects to rely on gas to meet its short-term energy needs as it switches off nuclear plants and races to scrap coal power by 2030.

But Greenpeace said the inclusion of gas projects with permits until 2030 would “deal a significant blow” to the EU’s plans to curb its carbon emissions.

The political route

If a court challenge does not succeed, any veto against the EU’s plans would have to come from member states or the European Parliament.

The first route is virtually out of the question, since the procedure would require all but seven EU capitals to object.

More than that have been lobbying Brussels in favour of splitting atoms, led by nuclear-reliant France. Supporters of atomic power say it is reliable, virtually carbon-free and reduces Europe's dependence on Russian gas.

A group of MEPs including Yannick Jadot, an environmentalist candidate for the French presidency, acknowledged in a statement that the chances of member states voting down the taxonomy was “practically hopeless”.

In the European Parliament, opponents of nuclear power would need 353 votes to strike down the proposal, but the assembly’s largest bloc gave a cautious welcome to the Commission’s proposals this week.

Members of the European Parliament could theoretically vote down the proposals. AP

The so-called taxonomy rules “are very important to direct private money and investments in the right direction,” said Esther de Lange of the centre-right European People’s Party, which has 182 seats. Another right-leaning group said nuclear energy was necessary to cut carbon emissions.

A coalition of green parties, with 73 seats in Strasbourg, launched a petition to stop proposals which it said were endangering the European Green Deal — the plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Mr Jadot and his colleagues called for public pressure on EU leaders, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, to stop a policy they described as dangerous and expensive.

“While nuclear energy produces relatively few greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear waste remains dangerous for generations to come,” they said.

“Investments in nuclear energy would come at the expense of investments in energy efficiency measures and the deployment of renewable energy such as wind and solar which lead to much faster greenhouse gas reduction.”

Updated: January 05, 2022, 12:49 PM