Green technology?: Nuclear power is cutting rifts across Europe

The Commission had just sent out its draft taxonomy, which regulates the classification of the various types of energy, on New Year’s Eve. The proposal from Brussels provides that investments in new nuclear power plants can be classified as green if they meet the latest standards and a concrete plan for radioactive waste is presented. Capital contributions to new gas-fired power plants should also be able to be classified as sustainable for a transitional period.

The implementation of the proposal can only be prevented if at least 20 EU states, which represent 65 percent of the total population of the EU or 353 members of the EU Parliament, join forces. This is considered unlikely because, apart from Austria, too few countries are opposed to including nuclear power in the taxonomy – including Germany, Luxembourg, Denmark, Spain and Portugal with reservations.

The EU Commission had given the states a three-week deadline for feedback, which expired on Saturday night. The feedback from Germany was available on Friday evening, in which several points were sharply criticized. “Serious accidents with large-scale, cross-border and long-term hazards for people and the environment cannot be ruled out. Nuclear energy is expensive and the question of final storage has not been solved,” says the statement by the traffic light government.

Divided camps

As vehemently as Austria is against it, the draft was greeted with relief elsewhere, especially in France. President Emmanuel Macron believes nuclear energy is essential for France and the EU to become carbon neutral by 2050 as planned. At the end of last year, he had announced one billion euros for its expansion. Nuclear power France already obtains almost 71 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants – the highest proportion in the world.

Graphics: APA/ORF.at; Quelle: BMK

According to the EU Commission, nuclear power only accounted for a share of around 25 percent across the EU in 2020, as the EU statistics office Eurostat announced on Tuesday. As a result, 13 EU countries generated 683,512 gigawatt hours (GWh) of nuclear power, in 2019 it was around 26 percent and 765,337 GWh. The largest producer of nuclear energy in the EU was France (52 percent), followed by Germany (nine percent), Spain (nine percent) and Sweden (seven percent).

exits and transfers

The disagreement between the EU states regarding the taxonomy is not surprising – the visions for the future handling of nuclear power are far apart. Germany, for example, decided to withdraw in 2011 after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan. At the beginning of 2022, three of the remaining six reactors went off the grid, the rest will follow at the end of this year. As stipulated in the coalition agreement, the new traffic light government rules out an extension.

Spain, which currently operates five active nuclear power plants with a total of seven reactors, also sees the future elsewhere: last year, wind power replaced nuclear power as the country’s leading energy source, and by 2030 the number of wind turbines is expected to almost double. Renewables already cover almost half of the total energy requirement in Spain.

Archive image of the nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, Germany

Reuters/Lukas Barth

Gundremmingen in Bavaria has been off the grid since the beginning of the year

In several other EU countries, however, the comeback of nuclear power is proclaimed. Belgium, for example, announced in December last year that it was relaxing its requirements for the planned shutdown of its nuclear power plants in 2025. The government confirmed the goal of taking the plants off the grid in the middle of the decade. However, two reactors should continue to produce electricity if the energy supply cannot be ensured in other ways.

Hoping for mini reactors

In addition, 100 million euros are to be invested in research into new technologies. Like France, Belgium wants to focus primarily on the Small Modular Reactors (SMR) concept. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines SMR plants as nuclear reactors with a maximum output of 300 megawatts (MW); in comparison, reactors in large power plants have over 1,000 MW more. However, SMRs have the advantage of being able to be built in series, which should generally result in a shorter construction time and lower costs.

The Netherlands, too, want to focus more on nuclear power under their recently sworn government. The coalition agreement provides for the construction of two new nuclear power plants. The Borssele nuclear power plant, which is the only one to date, is to remain connected to the grid for longer. The cabinet of the old and new Prime Minister Mark Rutte justified this with the fight against climate change.

Nuclear power station at Dampierre-en-Burly, France

Reuters/Benoit Tessier

France does not want to deviate a millimeter from its pro-nuclear course

Finland has already retrofitted – albeit much later than originally planned. The third nuclear reactor at the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant was started up at the end of last year with a twelve-year delay and an enormous cost explosion. Operator TVO described the move as “historic”: It is the first commissioning of a new nuclear reactor in Finland in 40 years and the first in Europe since Romania’s Cernavoda Block 2 reactor came on stream in 2007. At 1,650 megawatts, it will be the most powerful reactor Europe and cover 14 percent of Finland’s electricity needs.

The Czech Republic demands more

The Czech Republic also wants to expand nuclear power under the new liberal-conservative government. “We urgently need replacements for the reactors that have to be shut down,” said Prime Minister Petr Fiala at the beginning of the year. The oldest reactor units at the Dukovany site in southern Moravia have been connected to the grid for more than 35 years. The Temelin nuclear plant, just 60 kilometers from the Austrian border, is particularly controversial because it combines American control technology with Russian reactor technology. The Commission’s plans do not go far enough for Prague: nuclear power should not only be classified as a transitional technology.

Even in Italy, which had already phased out nuclear energy after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the debate is now back on the table. A referendum in 2011 rejected a return to nuclear power. Now, however, the recent drastic rise in electricity and gas prices is causing problems for many Italians. The right-wing Lega under Matteo Salvini therefore wants to start a new attempt and is collecting signatures for a referendum on the construction of new nuclear power plants. The Minister for the Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani, is also considered a proponent of nuclear energy.

Graphic showing the number of new nuclear power plants since 1951

Graphic: ORF.at; Source: DIW Berlin

Poland wants to break new ground

Poland, on the other hand, is following a special path in the EU: as the only country in the Union and as one of the very few in the world, it is planning to start using nuclear power. Earlier projects were shelved after Chernobyl. But now the national-conservative PiS government is forcing a change of direction: construction of the first reactor is to begin by 2026 at the latest, with five more to follow by 2043. The nuclear power plants are intended to help Poland phase out coal – the country currently generates almost 80 percent of its energy from hard coal and lignite.

Although there shouldn’t be much standing in the way of the Commission’s taxonomy plans, criticism of them will not go away anytime soon. The EU Parliament recently discussed the Commission’s proposal with great controversy, and some states are threatening to sue – above all Austria. Should Brussels actually implement the draft, “then we will take legal action,” said Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens). “We have very, very strong arguments.” However, it is doubtful that these will be heard.

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