The fight ahead: nuclear power versus energy sustainability in the EU

As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2020, with the UK finally to leave the European Union on 31 December after its transition period expires, the EU – primarily the Commission – itself has continued to refine the parameters of its sustainable energy strategy, which has been constructed very much in the face of the pressures of the unprecedented global pandemic. David Lowry has the details.

One big issue has been whether nuclear power should have any role, and if so, what?

This debate has had a long gestation period. For example, the green taxonomy, which some see as the most sensitive part of a European Commission plan on sustainable finance – which aims at shifting financial flows towards the decarbonisation of the economy – were presented in May 2018 by then Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, who underlined that financing the energy transition could not be financed with public money alone.

Then, on 28 March 2019, the European Parliament voted on the proposed classification for sustainable assets, which would have excluded nuclear power from receiving a green stamp of approval on financial markets.

The text voted in Parliament also excludes fossil fuels and gas infrastructure from the EU’s proposed green finance taxonomy, which aims to divert investments away from polluting industries into clean technologies.

In a bid to prevent “green-washing”, the Parliament text also requires investors to disclose whether their financial products have sustainability objectives, and if they do, whether the product is consistent with the EU’s green assets classification, or taxonomy.

While activists applauded the move, they said the classification voted by the European Parliament was too narrow and applies only to a limited set of recognisable green assets, such as wind and solar power companies

Kristina Jeromin, Head of Group Sustainability at Deutsche Börse and Managing Director of the Green and Sustainable Finance Cluster Germany, told EU specialist web site, EURACTIV, that she would have liked to see a more ambitious approach, and that the process was only at the beginning.

According to Jeromin, the amount of capital needed to move financial markets could not “only be stimulated by adopting a common taxonomy alone”.

Sébastien Godinot, an economist at the WWF’s European Policy Office, observed “To make more sustainable investments, investors, companies, and banks need to know how relatively good or bad for the environment all economic activities are. Instead, this result would only reveal the few which are definitely good for it,” adding “At least MEPs did take steps to tackle greenwashing by saying no to fossil fuels and nuclear power being labelled ‘sustainable.’

Nearly a year on from that EP vote, in January this year, the Commission unveiled new proposals, refining the EC position. At an expert briefing an EU sustainability taxonomy, a definition of priority investment areas, the clarification of investor duties and development of “official” European sustainability standards for green bonds were are some of the recommendations experts made to the European Commission on Wednesday.

On 14th January 2020, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal’s Just Transition Mechanism and the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan.

The former initiative has been crafted to provide “tailored financial and practical support to help workers and generate the necessary investments in regions most affected by the [energy] transition” primarily from fossil –fuel dependence. It will make investments more attractive, with an overall financial package worth at least €100 billion.

The latter plan is aimed to mobilise public investment and help unlock private funds through EU financial instruments – most notably InvestEU – according to an EC briefing “leading to a total of at least €1 trillion of investments. This is needed if the EU is to become the first climate-neutral bloc in the world by 2050.”

Speaking at the launch, the EC President Ursula von der Leyen, stressed that: “People are at the core of the European Green Deal, our vision to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050. The transformation ahead of us is unprecedented. And it will only work if it is just – and if it works for all. We will support our people and our regions that need to make bigger efforts in this transformation, to make sure that we leave no one behind. The Green Deal comes with important investment needs, which we will turn into investment opportunities.”

EC Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis added: “For Europe to transition to a climate-neutral economy, we need both political commitment and massive investments. The Green Deal shows our determination to tackle climate change, which we are now backing up with a funding plan. […] The European Union was not built in a day. A Green Europe will not happen overnight. Putting sustainability at the heart of how we invest requires a change of mindset. We have taken an important step towards achieving this today.”


Mobilising at least €1 trillion of investments over the course of 10 years, thanks to the combined:

€ capital from EU and national budgets;

25% of all European Union funding for climate measures

public and private investments;

30% of InvestEU to projects that fight climate change

additional measures to facilitate and boost green public and private investment;

attractive investment conditions;

Stimulating green investments with support from the EIB Group

technical assistance to help investors in selecting sustainable projects.

Just Transition Mechanism support of least €100 billion is planned to be available to all Member States, focused on the most carbon-intensive regions and regions with many people working in fossil fuels.

Member States will get access by preparing territorial just transition plans covering the period up to 2030, identifying the most impacted territories that should get support. Plans will set out ways to best address social, economic and environmental challenges.

EU-funded projects to green the economy

Hans-Werner Sinn, Professor of Economics at the University of Munich, a past President of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research – and who serves on the German economy ministry’s Advisory Council – is sceptic of the Just Transition, which was given further detailed contours by Ursula von der Leyen, in her first annual “state of the union” address on 16 September.

In her address, titled ‘Building the world we want to live in: A Union of vitality in a world of fragility’, she stressed: “This is our opportunity to make change happen by design – not by disaster or by diktat from others in the world. To emerge stronger by creating opportunities for the world of tomorrow and not just building contingencies for the world of yesterday. We have everything we need to make this happen. We have shaken off the old excuses and home comforts that have always held us back. We have the vision, we have the plan, we have the investment. It is now time to get to work.

Professor Sinn retorts: “with its so-called Green Deal, [the EC] has committed itself to a new and pervasive form of government intervention in the economy. Apparently, the bureaucrats in Brussels think that they — and only they — know which technological pathways are best for building a sustainable future…In adopting this approach, EU politicians are purporting to know things about the costs of avoiding carbon dioxide emissions that they in fact do not know. But because they will be spending other people’s money rather than their own, they have no incentive to seek out potentially less expensive methods of avoiding or reducing emissions. A naive faith in the wisdom and honesty of central planners — a fatal attraction we thought we had overcome in 1989 — is rearing its ugly head in Europe once again.”

..The carbon dioxide price emerging from a comprehensive emissions trading system would prompt all companies to look for the greenest options for investing in emission reductions. Green innovations would sprout up everywhere, and Brussels bureaucrats would marvel at the environmental benefits conferred by new technologies that they themselves had never considered feasible.

For example, hydrogen fuel cells might prevail over battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs). Green electricity from Extremadura might triumph over green electricity from the North Sea. The possibility of nuclear fusion would remain on the table.

“The EU Commission so far has shown no indication that it is willing to abandon central planning in favor of a comprehensive emissions trading system. By turning its back on the market, it exposes itself to the suspicion that its main concern is not with combating climate protection, but rather with crafting an industrial policy whose true motives and aims can only be a matter of speculation.”

A national exemplar

A Greener Slovakia, is the plan envisaged by one smaller WC member state, which has significant pressures to phase out former fossil-fuel dependence to alternative energy technology futures.

It stresses that “Global climate change is a worldwide problem, but there are measures that can mitigate and even prevent its impact on Slovakia. In our environment, this is especially the case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting and revitalizing ecosystems, reducing and mitigating the risk of floods and soil erosion. The current challenge is also to prevent and reduce

the consequences of drought and other unwanted impacts of climate change. The Strategy for the Environmental Policy of the Slovak Republic until 2030 was based on international, European and national legislation and applicable strategic documents, as well as from the study of the European Environment Agency that was focused on the analysis of global megatrends, and the follow-up assessment of global megatrends from the point of view of the Slovak Republic. “

It adds: “The 2030 Agenda contains the main 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), worked into 169 related sub-targets. While the primary objective of the Millennium Development Goals was to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger in developing countries, the motto of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is no one will be left behind“, and the pledge to fulfil its goals is expected also from developed countries. The 2030 Agenda is not legally binding, but its honouring is a natural duty of developed countries.”

The Slovak Ministry of the Environment will deal with the area of data and its publication in cooperation with all government departments, according to its material scope, and in cooperation with the Deputy Prime Minister‘s Office for Investments and Information and the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Civil Society.

Curiously, despite the very strong public support for nuclear power by the Slovak prime minister, Igor Matovič and his predecessor, Peter Pellegrini, it is not mentioned in this Green Transition National Plan.

Nuclear fight back

The global nuclear industry has sought ways to resurrect its much promised but in reality failed “nuclear renaissance” as the market and Governments have stubbornly failed to be convinced by its seductive atomic allure.

In the wake of von der Leyen’s “state of the union” speech, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) provided a platform to welcome the nuclear industry into its debate on the policy responses required to address climate change and sustainable development. A week after her speech, UNECE’s Expert Group on Resource Management (EGRM) held a session titled The role of nuclear energy resources in sustainable development as part of UNECE Energy Week 2020

   King Lee and Agneta Rising during a UNECE session in November

The session was chaired by King Lee, who leads World Nuclear Association’s ‘Harmony Programme’, which is the nuclear industry’s vision for the future of electricity, with a goal for nuclear energy to supply 25% of global electricity with 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050.

During the EGRM session, Lee presented the development of a new UNECE report, The Role of Nuclear Energy in Sustainable Development: Entry Pathways, which he said aims to inform “sound policy formulation” for countries considering nuclear energy programmes and the utilisation of uranium resources, and to help them define “locally relevant pathways” to support sustainable development. The report gives attention both to newcomer countries and the deployment of small modular reactors, as well as to existing large-scale nuclear reactor technologies.

The report was developed under the guidance of UNECE’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group with support from World Nuclear Association, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency.: the nuclear club was out in force.

Lee asserted “The report explores nuclear technology contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals where it plays a key role in decarbonising the energy sector, but it can also support the attainment of all other Sustainable Development Goals – including supporting the elimination of poverty, zero hunger, clean water, affordable energy, economic growth and industry innovation. It highlights SDG 7 energy as ‘central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today’. Energy access supports all of the SDGs and is a key pillar of the UN’s sustainable development agenda.”

The report draws on what its proponents assert is “the internationally recognised process for nuclear energy programme development – the IAEA’s Milestones Approach.” – and highlights five nuclear development considerations that are readily aligned with sustainable development: energy system evaluation and planning; socioeconomic development factors; environmental factors; regulatory and legal factors; and economics and project financing.

It recognises that nuclear energy supports the realisation of a number of national policy goals, Lee said, including: affordable and clean energy provision; mitigating climate change; enhancing energy resilience; and development of industry and infrastructure.

Scott Foster, director of UNECE’s Sustainable Energy Division, said the climate emergency was now at “10 past midnight” and that a technology neutral approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions was vital. The planet has reached a tipping point, and the emergency lights are flashing.”

He concluded: “We need to deploy every technology and to pursue every approach to reverse the trend. We must recognise that every country has its endowment of natural resources and its own cultural, legislative and regulatory heritage, and each country will pursue its pathway to the 2030 Agenda. What is clear, based on our work at UNECE, is that we will not achieve our objectives collectively if nuclear energy is excluded.”

Within days, a giant atomic jamboree in followed in Vienna, when the IAEA hosted its “2020 Scientific Forum on Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition”

The UN’s lead nuclear promotional body’s Director General, Dr Rafael Mariano Grossi, asserted in opening the forum that to meet climate change goals “almost all electricity will need to be low carbon, and that will only be possible if the use of nuclear power is increased. It will require us to make use of all energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is part of the solution.”

Mr Grossi emphasized how innovation is necessary for nuclear power to achieve its full potential. “Advanced large reactors are helping to make nuclear power more accessible, sustainable and affordable. Innovations [are] being used, or considered, to optimise the operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants.”

The IAEA claims that: “Nuclear power is a resilient source of energy, as demonstrated even during the pandemics, and already provides one third of all low carbon electricity. With technological and scientific progress in the use of atomic energy, this year’s Scientific Forum [will] examine how nuclear power can play a role in the clean energy transition helping countries achieve both climate and development goals.

The Scientific Forum is took place on the margins of the IAEA’s 64th General Conference

Alok Sharma, the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy- who is the President of COP 26, the UN Climate Change Conference, scheduled to take place in November 2021 in Glasgow in Scotland – observed in a video statement:  “In the first four months of this year, more than 60 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from low carbon sources, and a quarter of this clean electricity was generated by nuclear power. We know that a clean future depends on decarbonizing the power sector……and as a source of constant, low-carbon power, nuclear can play an important role.”

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, said that nuclear is part of the solution to address climate change, asserting: “The scale of the challenge of addressing climate is so big that we cannot afford to exclude nuclear from the table.. We must work to use all technology we have.”

Global ministers lobbied

At the G20 Energy Ministers Virtual Meeting, held on 27-28 September -under the presidency of Saudi Arabia on 27-28 September 2020, the Group of Twenty (G20) Energy Ministers acknowledged the role of nuclear energy in providing clean energy and enhancing energy security.

NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV, who participated in the meeting, presented the NEA’s analysis of the role of nuclear energy in a circular carbon economy. The NEA report Reduce: Nuclear prepared as part of the Guide to the Circular Carbon Economy (CCE) was published as part of a series coordinated by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre (KAPSARC) within the context of Saudi Arabia’s 2020 G20 Presidency.

At the end of the two-day meeting, the ministers issued a bland consensual communique.

The role of nuclear power in the circular carbon economy

TheNEA argued that “the circular carbon economy (CCE) approach applies the circular economy model and its ‘3Rs’ framework of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle to mitigating carbon emissions. The concept of the CCE also incorporates a fourth element, Remove. The reports that form the CCE Guide series provide detailed insights into each of these elements. Nuclear energy is incorporated within the “Reduce” element of the CCE framework, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adding strategies to a core circular economy such as energy efficiency and low-carbon energy generation.”

The NEA report concluded : “ While the existing nuclear fleet remains the world’s second largest low-carbon source of electricity after hydro, nuclear energy is not on track with the International Energy Agency (IEA) Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), which requires an annual average of 15 GW of new nuclear capacity between 2020 and 2040. Additional lifetime extensions and a doubling of the annual rate of capacity additions are therefore required to meet the SDS.”

The report further highlights the essential role played by the existing nuclear reactor fleet in supporting the resilience of the electricity system through the COVID-19 crisis, and the significant role that the nuclear sector can play in post-COVID-19 recovery efforts. As G20 countries recover from the COVID-19 crisis, governments should take advantage of the economic recovery stimulus to accelerate the energy transition towards meeting their climate objectives.

The nuclear debate is clearly far from over!


senior international research fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

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