It is a fight of several years between anti and pronuclear which knows its epilogue. The European Parliament did not oppose the integration of nuclear power into the European taxonomy aimed at promoting investment in green technologies. This vote, in the midst of the gas and energy crisis, recognized the atom as necessary to achieve European climate objectives.
At the beginning of July 2022, Parliament was to decide whether or not to include gas (under certain conditions) and nuclear within the European taxonomy. It is, it should be remembered, a classification aimed at facilitating the financing of so-called “green” activities, that is to say activities favorable to the fight against global warming and with no significant impact on the environment. Some environmental parliamentarians opposed this decision despite the upstream work of the Commission to establish this integration of nuclear energy on scientific bases.
An opposition that was above all motivated by an anti-nuclear ideology. However, the Commission, at the origin of the taxonomy, had asked its own scientific body, the “Joint Research Center” (JRC), to assess the impact of the atom on the environment. The latter had concluded that nuclear power had an impact equivalent to other low-carbon energies, renewable energies. This work was not taken into account by the opponents. No more than the successive reports of the IPCC, the International Energy Agency (IEA) or the OECD, which place nuclear power among the essential solutions to be implemented in the fight against global warming. The vote of objection to the delegated act1 required the support of a majority of MEPs – ie 353 out of 705 MEPs – and a very close vote was expected. In the end, 278 MEPs opposed the taxonomy project, against 328 MEPs who voted in favor of the delegated act. Nuclear will therefore be well integrated into the European taxonomy and the text will come into force from 2023. This will make it easier to control the cost of capital for the many nuclear projects underway in Europe.
Fire all wood against CO2
“I welcome the European Parliament’s vote in favor of a ‘green label’ which will include nuclear energy in the taxonomy. We need all low-carbon energies to make the energy transition a success,” welcomed Agnès Pannier-Runacher, French Minister for Energy Transition. Sama Bilbao y León, Director General of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), also judged that “the positive vote of the European Parliament sends clear support to nuclear energy and to the financial community. He listened to the science and recognized that sustainable investments in nuclear energy will help the EU achieve carbon neutrality by 2050”.
For the managing director of Nucleareurope (ex-Foratom), “science clearly indicates that nuclear power is sustainable and essential in the fight against climate change. It is fantastic, adds Yves Desbazeille, to see that a majority of the European Parliament has decided to listen to the experts and take the right decision”. As for Valérie Faudon, General Delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Company (Sfen), she was delighted that “an essential step has been taken: the European Union will need low-carbon nuclear power alongside renewables. to achieve its climate goals. The European Parliament has followed the opinion of the scientists of the Commission’s JRC on nuclear issues”.
However, this vote was very seriously threatened by the European gas crisis which has affected Europe for eighteen months and which has been aggravated by the war in Ukraine. However, the European Commission had taken the decision to link the destinies of gas and the atom in a common text (the use of gas in the energy transition being very widely supported by Berlin). Part of the opposition to the delegated act therefore wanted to eliminate gas from the European energy equation, risking dragging nuclear energy in its wake, despite being the leading source of electricity in Europe and the leading low-carbon energy.
Limits placed on the atom
Although nuclear power has now moved to the right side of the taxonomy, the fact remains that the text governing its use is far from perfect. “Nuclear is one of the technologies considered in the European energy transition, but the conditions applied to it remain very strict”, deciphers Jessica Johnson, director of communication at Nucleareurope (ex-Foratom). The expert regrets that there is a deadline for the use of existing reactor technologies, that is to say the 2nd and 3rd generation. In concrete terms, the delegated act requires that the extension of reactors be decided before 2040 and the construction of new reactors before 2045. These deadlines are not really consistent with the renewal schedules for the European nuclear fleet. Moreover, there does not seem to be any mention, as they stand, of fourth-generation reactors, capable of improving the fuel cycle, and whose massive commissioning on the continent is not planned until after 2050. .
Another uncertainty concerns the geological disposal of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel. While the delegated act acknowledges that this is a “state-of-the-art solution widely accepted by the expert community around the world as the safest and most sustainable option”, deadlines are also set. It is expected that nuclear Member States will operate such infrastructures by 2050. This will not be a problem for France2, Sweden or Finland, countries that are already very advanced. But this deadline will be impossible to meet for nations that are barely embarking on this path, starting with the Eastern European countries and in particular Poland.
Another challenge is that of the mandatory use from 2025 of Accident Tolerant Fuel (ATF), fuels that are more resistant to accident situations. The term ATF or EATF (“Enhanced Accident Tolerant Fuel”) designates a series of ideas, innovations or developments in fuel assemblies aimed at giving them interesting properties in operation, in incident situations or in accident situations. These developments are part of the natural process of evolution of the fuel product. In a statement by Sfen (publisher of the RGN), it is stated that “the use of ATFs cannot become a requirement insofar as this term does not designate precisely defined technologies” while explaining that these fuels will necessarily be used ultimately.
Peril on 2050
These considerations limiting the use of the atom jeopardize Europe’s ability to achieve its decarbonization objective by 2050, fears Jessica Johnson. “The problem is that a decision that should have been based on science has become a political object. We are making a political decision for a scientific problem. If we are not ready to listen to science today, we will not achieve our goals. Nuclear is included, but with criteria that are very difficult to achieve,” she explains.
From now on, it is the financial directorate of the European Commission, DG Fisma (Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union) which will have to translate the application of the taxonomy into financial terms. We will also have to wait for the consequences of the legal remedies announced by Austria and Luxembourg, perhaps supported by Spain, Denmark and NGOs (such as Greenpeace). It should be noted however that the German heavyweight, traditionally anti-nuclear, will not be associated with this appeal.
1. A delegated act is a non-legislative act adopted by the Commission to supplement or amend certain non-essential elements of a legislative act.
2. RGN “Zoom in” article.