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Is nuclear power sustainable? EU member states are split but must decide soon

Nuclear power and its role in the decarbonisation of the European Union is proving divisive among the bloc’s member states and has become yet another point of contention chipping away at the Franco-German alliance. 

The issue was not meant to be debated by leaders as they met in Brussels on Thursday and Friday yet loomed large over competitiveness and economic talks with France squaring off against Germany and allies Austria and Luxembourg. 

Paris wants nuclear to be recognised as a low-carbon energy source in order for it to benefit from a loosening of rules the EU is pushing through to ramp up the deployment of clean tech so it can wean itself off imported fossil fuels, lower energy prices for consumers and businesses and reach its ambition of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

The Commission has put forward multiple texts under its newly-released Green Deal Industrial Plan to allow member states to provide more state aid and slash red tape for projects involving green technologies including renewables, hydrogen infrastructure, heat pumps, geothermal energy and carbon capture and storage.

“It seems to us that we need a strategic discussion in the European Council to decide once and for all whether we collectively believe that nuclear energy plays a role in decarbonisation or not,” a source at the Elysée said before the EU Council summit.

“What we are asking for, and perhaps we need to clarify our request, is not so much that nuclear energy be considered green. It’s that we apply technological neutrality and that this is reflected in the texts,” the source added, arguing France does not necessarily want to tap into any new funding the EU might come up with for clean tech.  

“It is about administrative simplification, it is about guidance, for example, of vocational training. It’s about a whole bunch of other issues from which nuclear technologies are excluded by a decision of the European Commission,” the Elysée source said.

‘Nuclear renaissance’

For the country, the issue is almost existential. 

A whopping 68% of the country’s annual electricity generation was powered by nuclear in 2021 — the highest nuclear generation share in the world. 

It also has half (56) of the 103 operational nuclear reactors the European Union counts across 13 member states — including Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Germany, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden — that together generated a quarter of the total electricity produced in the bloc in 2021.

President Emmanuel Macron also announced last year that six mini-reactors — a new type meant to be cheaper and quicker to build because some parts can be produced in a factory — would be built by 2050 with the first one scheduled to come online by 2035. 

The move was announced at the same time as a planned ramp-up in renewable deployment with Macron saying both were needed to reach carbon neutrality and was cheered by the country’s nuclear industry which hopes to boost its footprint abroad through the mini-reactors. 

“The past decade has been marked by international doubt about nuclear power, a period of glaciation [following], of course, [the] terrible event at Fukushima,” he said at the time.

“Some nations made radical choices during this period [by turning] their back on nuclear power. France did not make this choice, it resisted but did not reinvest because this doubt was there,” he added, before saying that the conditions were now present for a “nuclear renaissance”.

‘Not fast, not cheap, not climate-friendly’

One nation that has turned its back on nuclear is Germany. 

Before the March 2011 accident in Fukushima, the country had 17 operational reactors, generating a quarter of its electricity. Just three remained in operation by October 2022 due to the phase-out policy triggered by the accident at the Japanese plant. 

Their operations, which were scheduled to be halted at the end of last year, were however extended to mid-2023 as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its decision to stop exports of gas to the country pushed energy prices higher and endangered the country’s energy security. Coal-powered plants were also extended. 

The Green party, part of the three-way ruling coalition, has ruled out revisiting the issue of the nuclear exit.

Germany’s allies on the issue include Spain, Denmark, Ireland, Austria, and Luxembourg.

The latter two filed a legal challenge in October last year over the inclusion of nuclear energy and natural gas on the European Union’s list of “green” investments, known as the taxonomy.

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel reiterated his strong opposition to nuclear energy upon arrival at the summit on Thursday, describing it as a “sham” to stamp a green label on the sector.

“(Nuclear energy) is not safe, it’s not that fast, and it’s not cheap, and it’s not climate-friendly either. It’s not, and I’ve been saying that for years,” Bettel told reporters, also mentioning the issue of nuclear waste.

His Autrian counterpart, Karl Nehammer, was equally unequivocal.

“We decided to phase out nuclear power in the 70s. We are the only country in the world that has not put a ready nuclear power plant into operation after a referendum,” he told reporters.

“That means our position is clear. We do not believe that nuclear power is the technology of the future because of the danger of nuclear power.

The ideological difference between the two factions risks delaying the adoption of the various legislative proposals the Commission has put forward to decarbonise the bloc’s economy and ensure energy independence.

The proposals, including the Net Zero Industry Act and the Critical Raw Materials Act, now need to be agreed upon by member states and the European parliament – a process that can take months or years.

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