Is Nuclear Energy ‘Green’? Germany Miffed by EU Proposals

By Patrick Goodenough | January 5, 2022 | 4:08am EST
The nuclear power plant at Neckarwestheim, one of the last three nuclear plants operating in Germany, scheduled to shut down at the end of this year. (Photo by Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)
The nuclear power plant at Neckarwestheim, one of the last three nuclear plants operating in Germany, scheduled to shut down at the end of this year. (Photo by Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)

( – As Europe weathers a severe energy crisis, a European Union proposal to include nuclear energy in its plan to combat climate change is attracting opposition from advocates who object to nuclear power despite significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than traditional sources.

The recommendations by the E.U.’s executive Commission, leaked on New Year’s Eve, are that both nuclear and natural gas energy should, under certain specified conditions, be labeled “green” and an important element in the bloc’s strategy of transitioning to “cleaner” sources of power.

“Taking account of scientific advice and current technological progress, as well as varying transition challenges across member states, the Commission considers there is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominantly renewable-based future,” it said in a weekend statement.

Amending the E.U.’s “taxonomy” – defined as its “classification of economic activities significantly contributing to environmental objectives, using science-based criteria” – would mean that nuclear and natural gas, under certain conditions, can be considered “sustainable” and eligible for investment.

The reported conditions include the need for nuclear plants to have appropriate measures in place to deal with the management and disposal of radioactive waste.

Natural gas power plants – producing far lower emissions levels than coal but much higher than nuclear plants – should be seen as a transitional energy source on the road to a carbon-neutral future, with no building permits for new ones being issued after 2030.

The European Commission is inviting revisions to the document until January 12 after which a final draft will be published. The European Parliament will then have four months to vote on it, and if a majority of the bloc’s member-states are in favor it would become law in 2023.

FORATOM, a group representing the nuclear industry in Europe, welcomed the Commission’s recommendations relating to nuclear power, while saying it was reviewing the proposed conditions “in order to identify its impact on the sector.”

“Nevertheless, we do not believe that nuclear should be treated as a transitional technology as it clearly contributes to climate mitigation objectives and does not cause more harm than any other power-producing technology already considered as taxonomy compliant.”

According to FORATOM, 106 nuclear reactors are currently in operation across the E.U., providing one million jobs, and producing 25 percent of the bloc’s energy needs – including almost half of Europe’s low-carbon electricity.

But the Commission recommendations brought a sharp response from green advocates, with Greenpeace saying they “would deal a significant blow to the E.U.’s climate and environment action.”

“Polluting companies will be delighted to have the E.U.’s seal of approval to attract cash and keep wrecking the planet by burning fossil gas and producing radioactive waste,” said the group’s E.U. program director Magda Stoczkiewicz.

The question of nuclear energy has long been fodder for debate among environmentalists, climate activists and the energy sector.

Proponents say it is objectively cleaner and safer than coal and oil sources, even taking into account the safety costs of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters (attributed to human error and design flaws in the former case, and natural disasters in the latter.)

Opposition is based on reasons ranging from cost and to concerns about safety and waste.

 The issue is being viewed differently by leaders of the E.U.’s two biggest economies.

Germany is phasing out its nuclear sector, having shut down three plants at the end of 2021, and intending to close the remaining three at the end of this year. The plan was initiated by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel in response to the earthquake- and tsunami-triggered accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011.

In contrast to the German approach, French President Emmanuel Macron last November announced plans to modernize nuclear reactors and build new ones – a sharp reversal from his position in 2018 when he said France would shutter more than a dozen nuclear reactors by 2035, reducing nuclear’s share of the national energy supply from 75 percent to 50 percent.

Germany’s new coalition government, which includes the Greens, reacted negatively to the E.U. proposal, with government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit saying it considers nuclear technology to be “dangerous,” citing concerns about radioactive waste. He said Berlin has voiced its objections to Brussels.

Germany is not, however, objecting to the E.U. proposals on classifying natural gas, which currently accounts for around 15 percent of its electricity production.

Hebestreit did say the government aimed to use natural gas only as a “bridge” en route to a reliance on renewable sources.

The German government is hoping that Russian natural gas will be flowing through the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea later this year.

Before three of the six nuclear plants were closed, nuclear accounted for around 12 percent of Germany’s power production. Renewables such as solar and wind current make up about 41 percent, with a goal of rising to 80 percent by 2030.

(In the U.S., the proportions in 2020 were 40.5 percent natural gas, 19.8 percent renewables, 19.7 percent nuclear, and 19.3 percent coal.)

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