In its so-called taxonomy, the EU seeks to define the economic activities that can be considered sustainable. Pro-nuclear lobby groups and countries are fighting tooth and nail for nuclear energy to be one of the lucky recipients of this label. Germany could block this plan, but the fact it wants fossil gas labelled as “sustainable” suggests that the entire issue could degenerate into horse-trading. Julian Bothe (.ausgestrahlt) surveys the fault lines of the debate.
The taxonomy is the EU’s flagship plan to steer the financial economy towards the European Green Deal. In future, only investments that are listed in an exhaustive rulebook – the taxonomy – will be classified as “sustainable”. The fundamental premise is that investments should benefit the environment without harming other environmental objectives or people. The EU regulation itself has already been signed off, but there are rows over implementation and precise criteria. The rules in the field of climate protection and climate change adaptation are to apply from 2022 onwards, with the remaining areas to follow in 2023.
Earning the label “classified sustainable by the EU” will facilitate access to funding, both public and private. It will generate activity and positively influence the costs and practicality of projects, directly and indirectly. The criteria are therefore the subject of fierce political battles and the target of many lobbying activities. The inclusion of nuclear energy and fossil gas has seen particularly bitter wrangling – and should they succeed, both of these fights would ultimately water down the entire taxonomy and leave it unfit for purpose.
As regards fossil gas, the high barriers erected in the original draft were undermined in the course of the process by several loopholes. Various southern and eastern European countries petitioned for fossil gas to be categorised as “sustainable”. The German federal government too has deemed the construction of new gas-fired power plants a vital transitional technology and therefore wants a label for natural gas.
The row over fossil gas and nuclear power ultimately led to astonishing developments: in a proposal published at the end of April, both technologies were temporarily excluded from the taxonomy; there will be no decision on either until autumn 2021. The battle is therefore unlikely to end before then.
Nuclear energy in the taxonomy
The nuclear industry and pro-nuclear states see the taxonomy as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to greenwash this high-risk technology. For years, they have tried to brand nuclear power as “low-carbon”, and thus place it on an equal footing with renewable energies, downplaying its risks and costs. The “sustainability label” would give a shot in the arm to a source of energy that has been on the decline for years and unable to compete on price under market conditions. Maintenance measures, extending the working lives of plants, building new NPPs or even using nuclear power to generate hydrogen would be far easier if nuclear power were given a place in the EU taxonomy, while its exclusion would deal it a heavy blow.
In 2019, the Commission tasked a technical expert group (TEG) with defining the scientific principles for the criteria to be used in the taxonomy. In its report, it came to the conclusion that nuclear power cannot be deemed a sustainable investment. In particular, it stressed that it does not meet the “do no significant harm” criterion: activities that serve one environmental objective may not harm others at the same time. By way of example, the group referred, amongst other things, to the many unresolved questions about getting rid of radioactive nuclear waste.
Assessment by an atomic Institute
As shown by an evaluation carried out by the NGO “Reclaim Finance”, lobby groups, such as the European Atomic Forum, responded by stepping up their efforts: while nuclear lobbyists have been meeting EU officials once a month on average since 2018, the frequency of these meetings doubled in the months following the publication of the TEG report.
At political level, the European Commission and Parliament failed to agree at several sessions that nuclear power should be kept out of the taxonomy. France, the United Kingdom (when it was still an EU member) and several Eastern European countries made the case for an exemption, which other countries explicitly rejected. In a resulting compromise, it was decided that nuclear power would be reassessed in a second report, unlike the other technologies. This second report was meant to remain confidential and, in a departure from usual practice, would only be checked by two internal committees.
In a move akin to setting the fox to guard the geese, the EU Nuclear Research Institute in Karlsruhe was the entity selected to produce the second report. Now an offshoot of the EU “Joint Research Centre” (JRC), it was originally set up as a “plutonium institute”, was known as the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) until 2016 and has received some of its funding from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), the stated aim of which is to promote nuclear energy, since the 1950s. It has also been involved for many years in research into new-style “Generation IV” nuclear reactors.
The secret report entered the public domain at the end of March. Unsurprisingly, the JRC comes to the conclusion that nuclear energy is detrimental neither to people nor the environment. Across Europe, countless environmental organisations have pointed out that the paper hides the numerous problems caused by nuclear energy behind soundbites and rhetorical devices. For instance, the report claims that new third-generation reactors lead to an increase in safety – even though not a single reactor of this generation is connected to the grid anywhere in Europe and those that are currently under construction in Flamanville, Hinkley Point and Olkiluoto have been beleaguered by enormous technical issues. The report argues that the nuclear waste problem has been sorted out because radioactive waste could be stored in the geological repositories – but fails to mention that this promise was first made several decades ago and there is not one single functioning deep geological nuclear waste repository in operation anywhere in the world.
Overall, the report disregards all practical issues, as it concerns itself only with theories, legislation and models. Issues that not even this trick can camouflage are played down by invoking hypothetical future technical developments. Both are tactics which the pro-nuclear lobby has been using for years.
The classification of nuclear energy shows: In contrast to the claims of the taxonomy, the development of the criteria is a very political process in which scientific facts are easily skipped over. This is also shown by further actions: shortly before the JRC report was made public, the French President, flanked by the heads of government of several other member states, approached the Commission and made new calls for “active” EU support for nuclear energy.
Showdown in the autumn
And so the row over the classification of nuclear power rumbles on. In June at the latest, after several months of confidential assessment of the JRC report, there will be further public discussions. What the German government does in this process will be key. The chances of nuclear power being included in the EU taxonomy without Germany’s declared support will be vanishingly small. But the spectre of horse-trading looms: it is very much in Germany’s interests for natural gas projects to be classed in the taxonomy as “sustainable” or at least “transitional”. Public pressure against the inclusion of both fossil gas and nuclear power in the taxonomy is therefore vital.
A slightly longer version of this article was first published by “.ausgestrahlt“ in May 2021. Link to original article in German: https://www.ausgestrahlt.de/blog/2021/05/11/eu-taxonomie-kampf-um-die-pfr%C3%BCnde/