Amid Energy Crisis, EU Fights Over Whether Nuclear Is Green

Brussels’s plans to cut emissions by promoting nuclear power has parts of the bloc up in arms.

By , a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Water vapor rises from the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant shortly before it was permanently shut down as part of Germany's phaseout of all nuclear power, near Grafenrheinfeld, Germany. on June 11, 2015
Water vapor rises from the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant shortly before it was permanently shut down as part of Germany's phaseout of all nuclear power, near Grafenrheinfeld, Germany. on June 11, 2015
Water vapor rises from the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant shortly before it was permanently shut down as part of Germany's phaseout of all nuclear power, near Grafenrheinfeld, Germany. on June 11, 2015 Sean Gallup/Getty Images

With European energy prices skyrocketing and pressure growing on the European Union to cut carbon emissions more quickly, it was only a matter of time before the debate over zero-carbon nuclear power came back to the fore—and with it, old divisions among EU member states.

On New Year’s Eve, the European Commission presented the 27 EU member states with a draft regulation designating natural gas and nuclear power as “green” fuels for electricity generation. The draft includes nuclear because it produces virtually no emissions and gas because it is seen as a relatively clean transition fuel that will help the EU phase out much dirtier coal. If the European Parliament and member states approve, nuclear and gas will join renewable sources such as wind and solar energy on a list of technologies approved for private investment and EU financial support beginning in 2023.

Why is this important, when each EU country decides on its own how to produce electricity? Brussels wants to accelerate emissions cuts in order to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by midcentury—and following recent reforms of the EU budget, the commission now has control over substantial funds to help achieve that goal. What’s more, an official EU designation as green may help private companies, including lenders, meet increasingly ubiquitous environmental, social, and governance mandates.

With European energy prices skyrocketing and pressure growing on the European Union to cut carbon emissions more quickly, it was only a matter of time before the debate over zero-carbon nuclear power came back to the fore—and with it, old divisions among EU member states.

On New Year’s Eve, the European Commission presented the 27 EU member states with a draft regulation designating natural gas and nuclear power as “green” fuels for electricity generation. The draft includes nuclear because it produces virtually no emissions and gas because it is seen as a relatively clean transition fuel that will help the EU phase out much dirtier coal. If the European Parliament and member states approve, nuclear and gas will join renewable sources such as wind and solar energy on a list of technologies approved for private investment and EU financial support beginning in 2023.

Why is this important, when each EU country decides on its own how to produce electricity? Brussels wants to accelerate emissions cuts in order to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by midcentury—and following recent reforms of the EU budget, the commission now has control over substantial funds to help achieve that goal. What’s more, an official EU designation as green may help private companies, including lenders, meet increasingly ubiquitous environmental, social, and governance mandates.

Some climate-minded European governments will be uneasy that gas—a fossil fuel—is included on the EU’s list. But the much bigger controversy has erupted over nuclear, where the fault lines in Europe run deep.

Fission reactors currently supply about a quarter of the EU’s electricity that cannot be quickly replaced by other carbon-free sources. Second, nuclear plants generate power around the clock, helping to keep the lights on as the EU deploys ever more wind turbines and solar installations that don’t produce electricity when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

If it were solely about climate policy and carbon emissions, the debate over nuclear power would long be settled.

Until Dec. 31, 2021, when the draft was promptly leaked to the press, the commission kept the inclusion of nuclear in the list of green technologies under wraps, but it was not a surprise move. In 2018, the commission told states and EU parliamentarians that to attain carbon neutrality by 2050, power generation must increase by as much as two-and-a-half-fold and that electricity from nuclear energy would have to be part of the mix of non-carbon-emitting power. That view was echoed over the weekend by European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who told Le Journal du Dimanche that he expects 500 billion euros of investment in nuclear power will be needed by 2050. Still, it took the commission three years to establish the new criteria because of long-standing safety and environmental concerns and objections from member states critical of nuclear power.

The moment the proposed EU regulation was leaked, battle lines were drawn along the Rhine. France, with 56 power reactors and nuclear weapons, is by far the EU’s leading atomic state. It is poised to launch a national nuclear power investment drive, announced by President Emmanuel Macron last fall and seconded by most candidates in this year’s presidential elections. Germany, on the other hand, permanently turned off three of its remaining six reactors on the same day the commission sent out the proposed regulation—in line with Berlin’s 2011 commitment to phase out nuclear power. The anti-nuclear Social Democrats and Greens who succeeded Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government last month are on course to complete the phaseout by the end of this year. Joining Germany is even more fiercely anti-nuclear Austria and a small number of other countries, while France’s most vocal support in favor of nuclear power comes from Finland and the Czech Republic.

If it were solely about climate policy and carbon emissions, the debate would long be settled. France, where 70 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power, has the lowest emissions from electricity generation per capita among the major EU economies. Germany, where both coal use and emissions rose in 2021, significantly exceeds the EU average—and produces more than six times the per-capita emissions from electricity generation of France, even though Germany styles itself as a green forerunner.

Because Germany is Europe’s largest economy, leads a group of half a dozen EU states that oppose nuclear power, and is now ruled by the Greens, whose credibility will be put to the test by the proposed regulation, one might expect that Berlin would be spearheading conflict with Brussels on the proposed regulation. In reality, however, that’s unlikely for at least three reasons.

One is that Germany consistently prioritizes a close relationship with France. On Jan. 1, France assumed the rotating EU presidency, which gives it power over the bloc’s agenda during the six months when member states may consider the proposed new rule. Macron clearly wants to make progress on climate change issues in Brussels, as does Germany. Last month, German Greens leader and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, in her first foreign trip immediately after assuming office, met with her French counterpart in Paris and underscored her commitment to a strong Franco-German partnership. In advance of the EU’s pending nuclear decision, Greens leaders expect that the majority of EU states will accept the proposal. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has downplayed opposition to the EU proposal within his government, and the Greens’ damage control campaign is already blaming Merkel for having paved the way toward the EU initiative.

German opposition may also be blunted because the commission presented the inclusion of nuclear as part of a package deal that permits EU states during the energy transition to burn natural gas, a fuel that Germany increasingly relies on to compensate for the loss of nuclear and coal in the electricity fuel mix.

Lastly, Berlin may not strenuously oppose the nuclear regulation because it is not clear that it will actually encourage significant nuclear power investments. That’s because the proposal includes criteria for nuclear waste management that are a potential roadblock. For both newly built reactors and operating lifetime extensions for existing ones, the draft criteria require “a plan with detailed steps to have in operation, by 2050, a disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste.” This would imply that all essential activities for a repository project—geological screening, site and technology selection, political approvals, licensing, and construction—be completed in less than three decades. While that might appear to be plenty of time, Europe’s record suggests otherwise. In Finland, where public acceptance of nuclear power is high, about 40 years was required to begin operating a site. In Sweden, the quest for a repository has been ongoing for nearly half a century and won’t be over before 2030. Spain began geological screening during the 1980s but does not expect to operate a repository before 2068. Depending on the final version of the repository rule, nuclear investments between now and 2050 might be few.

Despite its approval in principle, the plan also includes other conditions that might discourage large-scale nuclear investment. The draft regulation requires an opinion from the commission that new nuclear projects deploy the “most advanced solutions” and “best-available technology,” including accident-tolerant fuels still under development and yet to be licensed. The draft also includes periodic technology reviews by the commission, as well as notification requirements.

EU member states now have until Jan. 21 to file interventions and counterproposals. There will be many of these, and it will be up to the commission to decide which it will accept. Once the commission prepares its final version, the regulation will be scrutinized by the European Parliament and the member states for up to six months. Provided that a majority of parliamentarians or a supermajority of 20 member states don’t stand in the way, the EU’s plan may finally come to pass—more than three years after the commission first announced its intention to promote zero-carbon nuclear power in the fight to lower emissions.

Mark Hibbs is a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Twitter: @MarkHibbsCEIP

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