Why Brussels needs to overcome its nuclear aversion
Welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief, our weekly selection of energy and environment news from across Europe. To subscribe, follow this link. You can also subscribe to our daily newsletter here and to our comprehensive weekly update here.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen triggered a political storm in France when she declared last week that nuclear power was not a “strategic” technology to reach the EU’s climate goals.
“I am saying this calmly: that the European Commission still doesn’t classify nuclear among the strategic technologies to succeed in the decarbonisation is unacceptable”.
The comment from Antoine Armand, a centrist lawmaker who leads a special parliament inquiry into France’s flagging energy sovereignty, was among the most cool-headed responses to von der Leyen’s statement, which triggered furious reactions in France, many of them overtly anti-German.
“Enough is enough. Germany can’t impose its choices to the other member states,” wrote Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United Nations and the US, in a remarkable departure from usual diplomatic restraint.
So what did von der Leyen actually say to unleash such passion? In essence, she explained that nuclear was not retained as a “strategic technology” under the EU’s Net-Zero Industry Act presented by the European Commission the week before.
Although the president admitted that nuclear “can play a role in our decarbonisation effort,” von der Leyen drew a line in the sand: “only the net-zero technologies that we deem strategic for the future – like solar panels, batteries and electrolysers, for example – have access to the full advantages and benefits” available under the new EU regulation,” she said.
Indeed, nuclear does not appear in a separate annex to the regulation, which lists the “strategic” technologies needed to meet the EU’s net-zero objective.
The “strategic” label is not insignificant. Industries considered “strategic” will be eligible to benefit from full-scale backing from the EU, including access to funding programmes and broader regulatory support.
The battle is far from over, though – the Commission’s draft regulation can still be modified by the European Parliament and EU member states, who need to agree on a common text before it becomes law.
And France has strong arguments to put forward in the negotiations now opening in Brussels.
First is the principle of technology neutrality, which leaves EU countries freedom “to choose the most appropriate and suitable technology” to meet agreed European goals – without imposing nor discriminating against any particular one.
Germany successfully pressured (some say “blackmailed”) the Commission to apply this principle in relation to the EU’s regulation on CO2 emissions from cars, which Berlin said unfairly discriminates against vehicles running on eFuels.
Applying the tech neutrality principle to eFuels – which don’t yet exist – “but refusing to do so with existing nuclear power” plants which make a real contribution to the bloc’s decarbonisation is “incoherent”, to say the least, according to the office of Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the French energy minister.
But France’s most powerful argument is written in Article 194 of EU treaty, which stipulates that EU decisions on energy policy “shall not affect a Member State’s right to determine […] its choice between different energy sources” provided that common European goals are met.
French President Emmanuel Macron once again underlined this after last week’s EU summit. Asked about the ongoing standoff with von der Leyen on nuclear, Macron reminded that France can decide its energy mix as long as it meets the EU’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
“This is what corresponds to the very spirit of our treaties – respecting each other’s energy mixes but preserving a principle of technological neutrality enshrined in the European treaties,” Macron said.
The implications of this should not be understated. Across the EU, nuclear power makes up 25% of the electricity supply. And it’s a low-carbon electricity source with average emissions comparable to wind energy and lower than solar.
In the European Union, 13 countries, including Germany, have nuclear power plants still in operation. And alongside France, other countries like Finland, Poland and Hungary have plans to build new nuclear reactors in an attempt to decarbonise their energy mix.
Atomic energy is also significant in the power mix of other EU countries. Behind France, which generates 69% of its electricity from nuclear, others like Slovakia (52%), Belgium (51%), and Romania (19%) have significant shares of nuclear power in their mix.
Whether Brussels likes nuclear or not is beside the point – it has no choice but to acknowledge the energy choices of EU member states. As long as this remains a national competence, the EU even has a duty to support member states in reaching the bloc’s net-zero emission goal, which is enshrined in the European Climate Law.
Ignoring nuclear, like Brussels has done until now, by keeping an “agnostic” stance on the technology will not make the matter go away. If anything, the Commission risks slowing down attempts from EU member states to decarbonise, leading to a wider failure in meeting the EU’s climate goals.
Instead of dragging its feet, Brussels should embrace nuclear and seek to regulate the sector so that new reactors – including the new generation of small modular reactors – are built on schedule and budget as part of a competitive EU market promoting the highest safety standards.
Outside Europe, all major economies have integrated nuclear power in their decarbonisation plans, including the US, China, India and even Japan, which recently reversed its decision to phase out atomic energy after the Fukushima incident.
Europe cannot afford to stay out of this strategic race.
EU countries approve ban on sale of petrol, diesel cars from 2035
Member states gave their final approval on Tuesday (28 March) to a regulation that will ban the sale of carbon-emitting cars and vans after 2035, bringing to a conclusion one of the most controversial elements of the EU’s Green Deal.
EU strikes ‘ground-breaking’ deal to cut maritime emissions
The European Parliament and EU ministers struck a deal in the early hours of Thursday morning (23 March) on the bloc’s flagship law to cut emissions in the maritime sector, marking a major step forward for the bloc’s plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
EU clamps down on misleading ecolabels with penalties against greenwashing
The European Commission tabled new legislation on Wednesday (22 March) to tackle misleading environmental claims by introducing penalties against greenwashing and tighter rules for the approval of new ecolabels.
LUXEMBOURG. Luxembourg slams Germany on combustion, France on nuclear. Energy Minister Claude Turmes took aim at Germany’s business-friendly FDP for stalling the combustion engine row over the past few weeks and criticised Paris for its recent repeated attempts at pro-nuclear lobbying. Read more.
LJUBLJANA. Slovenian farmers up in arms over environmental restrictions. About 5,000 Slovenian farmers took to the streets in their tractors across nearly two dozen cities and towns Friday to protest conditions they say are making it near impossible to work with. Read more.
WESTERN BALKANS. Six Western Balkan green parties join in cooperation platform. In an unprecedented political initiative, five green parties from Western Balkan countries, plus Croatia, signed a declaration on Sunday about a cooperation platform, pledging to work together for peace and environment, and against corruption. Read more.
HELSINKI. Finland’s Fortum bands with Rolls-Royce to explore modular reactors. State-owned energy company Fortum and Rolls-Royce signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the opportunities for deploying small modular reactors (SMR) in Finland and Sweden. Read more.
HELSINKI. Finnish region could produce 10% of EU’s zero-emission hydrogen. Finland’s North Ostrobothnia region should be able to produce ‘at least’ one-tenth of the EU’s zero-emission hydrogen in 2030, a study published by the Technical Research Centre of Finland on Wednesday reads. Read more.
BERLIN. German liberals push for petrol price hike instead of combustion ban. Germany’s free-market FDP party, currently blocking the EU-wide phase-out of internal combustion engines for cars, has proposed tackling road transport carbon by increasing the price of petrol and diesel through national carbon pricing and giving the money back to citizens via a per-capita direct payment. Read more.
EU countries reach common position on gas and hydrogen ‘package’. The EU’s 27 energy ministers reached agreement on Tuesday (28 March) on new rules for the transition to renewable and low-carbon gases across the bloc.
The “general approach” reached by the EU’s Energy Council means negotiations to finalise the gas and hydrogen package can now begin, with a view to reach a final agreement with the European Parliament, which adopted its position in February.
Tabled in December 2021, the gas package seeks to steer Europe away from fossil gas and pave the way for more sustainable energy sources like biomethane and renewable and low-carbon hydrogen.
Part of the agreement reached by EU countries relates to blending of hydrogen in gas networks. Under the Council’s general approach, hydrogen blending should not 2% by volume, instead of 5% under the Commission’s original proposal.
Moreover, hydrogen and renewable gases seeking to access the gas grid will benefit from tariff discounts of 100% for renewables and 75% for low-carbon gases.
A new European Network of Network Operators for Hydrogen (ENNOH) would be created to promote a dedicated hydrogen infrastructure as well as cross-border interconnections. More detail here. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com).
EU extends emergency measure to curb gas demand for 12 months. European Union countries agreed on Tuesday (28 March) to extend for a year an emergency measure to voluntarily reduce their gas use, to help prepare for another European winter with scarce Russian supplies.
EU countries’ energy ministers agreed to extend for the next 12 months, until March 2024, a voluntary target to curb their gas demand by 15%.
The emergency measure, which the EU agreed last year in response to Russia slashing gas supplies to Europe, was due to expire at the end of March. (EURACTIV.com with Reuters)
Enel builds Italy’s biggest agrovoltaic plant. Italian Utility Enel has started the construction of the largest Italian agrovoltaic plant in Tarquinia, in the Lazio region.
The photovoltaic power plant will have a capacity of around 170 MW and, once fully operational, is expected to generate around 280 GWh per year on average, thus becoming Italy’s biggest agrovoltaic plant, according to Enel.
The plant will use bifacial photovoltaic modules that enable solar energy to be absorbed on both surfaces. The panels will be mounted on “trackers”, which are sun-tracking structures, in order to maximise the production of renewable energy, Enel explains.
“An increase in the use of renewable energy can be harmoniously combined with agricultural activities,” stated Salvatore Bernabei, CEO of Enel Green Power. “This plant will seamlessly integrate with the local area and will host crops, resulting in a positive impact on the environment, the economy and the local area, as well as helping to reduce Italy’s energy dependency.” (Valentina Romano | EURACTIV.com)
Investors ask for strict financial reporting requirements on chemicals. A group of 20 investors wrote an open letter to the European Commission on 21 March, “to emphasise the importance of having truly sustainable criteria in the EU Taxonomy regulation to encourage […] the development of safer chemicals”.
The investors urge the Commission to keep the ‘do not significant harm’ principle and to state that regulated substances, as well as substances that meet the criteria for being Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs), cannot be considered sustainable.
“For investors, the production and use of hazardous chemicals is also linked to substantial financial risks,” the letter reads.
“If the criteria allow harmful chemicals, it will be difficult for us to conduct proper assessments of risks and opportunities in the chemical sector. This would not only increase the risk of asset mispricing and financial volatility in Europe, it would also undermine our ability to allocate capital efficiently for the green transition”. Read the full letter here. (Valentina Romano | EURACTIV.com)
- 18-19 APRIL. Informal meeting of environment ministers.
- 17 MAY. Measures to reduce the release of microplastics in the environment.
- JUNE. European Parliament Plenary vote on the EU Nature Restoration Law.
- 6-7 JUNE. EU Green Week.
- 19 JUNE. Energy Council.
- 20 JUNE. Environment Council.
- 21 JUNE. Greening transport package.
- 29-30 JUNE. European Council.
- 30 JUNE. Deadline for European Member States to update their revised National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs).
SECOND HALF OF 2023
- Q4. Revision of REACH regulation.
- 26-27 OCTOBER. European Council.
- 30 NOVEMBER-12 DECEMBER. UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28), Dubai.
- 14-15 DECEMBER. European Council.