Europe’s Nuclear Power Puzzle

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  • EU member states hold divergent views on the inclusion of nuclear power in the green energy transition, hindering consensus.
  • Nuclear power is seen as a potential solution for energy security and clean energy production, but concerns about nuclear waste persist.
  • While some countries are closing nuclear plants, others are investing in new facilities, causing further division within the bloc.

Since the European Commission stated the need for an accelerated green transition that includes nuclear power and natural gas, it seems member states are having a hard time agreeing on nuclear development. While some countries, such as Germany, are closing their nuclear plants, others, including Finland and Hungary, are developing new facilities. So, after years of nuclear power fearmongering and avoidance, where will Europe land on new nuclear development?

In 2022, the European Commission defined both nuclear power and natural gas as climate-friendly energy sources, adding both to the EU “taxonomy” rulebook from 2023 to spur ‘green’ investment in both sectors. This is a decision that was approved by the European Parliament after much deliberation from member states about how these types of energy should be defined. The EU financial services chief Mairead McGuinness explained: “The Complementary Delegated Act is a pragmatic proposal to ensure that private investments in gas and nuclear, needed for our energy transition, meet strict criteria.”

Natural gas is viewed by the EU as a transition fuel, necessary to ensure energy security in the shift away from dirtier fossil fuels to green alternatives. Meanwhile, nuclear energy, although not a renewable source of power, is viewed as clean, as operations do not emit greenhouse gases. However, many argue that the nuclear waste it produces could be detrimental to the environment, particularly as there is no cohesive international agreement on how to appropriately dispose of this waste. Yet, there is wide agreement that nuclear power could at least help the region achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.

Despite the inclusion of nuclear power in the EU rulebook under the green taxonomy, many countries continue to disagree on the use of nuclear energy and the development of new projects. And a divide means delays. In May this year, the EU was expected to finalize a new target to source 42.5 percent of the region’s energy from renewable sources by 2030, an increase from the previous goal of 32 percent. But France chose not to support the plan as low-carbon hydrogen generated using electricity from nuclear power would not qualify as renewable under the targets. At present, France produces around 70 percent of its electricity using nuclear energy, with plans to construct six more reactors. Six other pro-nuclear member states also opposed the plan.

While several EU states support the development and use of nuclear power as a clean energy source, others, such as Germany and Belgium, refused to classify nuclear energy as clean. Weeks later, the debate is still ongoing, with France hoping to reopen negotiations over the Green Deal law, but Germany hopes to pass the law in its current state.

In April, Germany closed the doors to its last three nuclear power plants, after a nuclear history of around 60 years. Many Germans argue that an overreliance on nuclear energy could distract from the development of renewable energy operations. However, others believe it is a vital source of low-carbon energy. The government saw last-minute calls to keep nuclear plants running, at least while the current energy crisis is still threatening the country’s energy security. But it went ahead with the closures. Steffi Lemke, Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment and Consumer Protection and a Green Party member explained: “The position of the German government is clear: nuclear power is not green. Nor is it sustainable.”

But with pressure to decrease reliance on Russian energy, particularly natural gas, many countries see no other way to achieve their climate goals than to turn to nuclear power. While many states plan to ramp up the development of renewable energy projects, nuclear energy presents a clear path to wide-scale clean energy production, that would enhance the energy security of these states and the EU.

Several of Europe’s emerging economies have stated their support for nuclear power. By the beginning of the year, there were advanced plans for new nuclear reactors in Hungary, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, in addition to tentative plans for small modular reactors (SMRs) across the region from the 2030s. With strong expectations that these states should both reduce their dependence on Russian energy as well as support an accelerated green transition, they believe that nuclear power is key to their energy security.

And in the U.K., Labour Party leader Kier Starmer announced this month that nuclear power is a “critical part” of the country’s energy mix, pledging to get delayed projects moving again. He suggested that the development of new nuclear plants could boost energy security, cut costs for consumers, and create jobs. He criticized the Conservative Party for not bringing any new nuclear power plants online during its 13 years in power, including Hinkley Point C in Somerset, despite Centrica announcing a joint venture with EDF to build the plant in 2009.

And Finland just opened a major new nuclear plant, the biggest in Europe to date. After 14 years of delays, the Olkiluoto 3 plant came online in April. It is expected to provide around 40 percent of Finland’s electricity, helping it to improve the country’s energy security and advance carbon-cutting targets. It has a massive capacity of 1,600 MW and was connected to the Finnish national power grid in March 2022 for a pilot phase, a year before the official launch.

After over a year of debate, various EU member states can still not agree on the use of nuclear power in the region. While many view it as vital to providing energy security and producing vast amounts of clean energy, others say it is detracting from renewable energy projects, and there is still a big question about how to dispose of the potentially harmful nuclear waste. Until this issue can be agreed upon, the Green Deal law will likely remain in a state of limbo.


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