An expert report for the European Commission finds no scientific reason to exclude nuclear power from a list of renewable energy resources. Made public in March, the report represents a temporary win for proponents of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy has a contentious status in society. Hazardous waste and memories of colossal disasters loom large. At the same time, sober appeals are made to nuclear energy’s low-carbon power, small upkeep costs, and unparalleled reliability in supporting power grids.
The Commission is working on its sustainable finance taxonomy, regulation that will determine, among other things, which resources are considered green for investment purposes. Some industry experts find nuclear power too expensive, dangerous, and too slow in reducing climate change to merit status as a transition fuel. Others refute much of this and point to a long list of redeeming qualities.
Following a lack of consensus last year, the European Commission set the Joint Research Centre (JRC), its science review body, the task of determining the official line on nuclear sustainability.
The JRC is the European Commission’s science and knowledge service. It employs scientists to carry out research, providing independent scientific advice and support for EU policymakers.
“The analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the Taxonomy as activities supporting climate change mitigation,” the report states.
The researchers also concluded that regarding impacts on human health and the environment, nuclear is broadly comparable with other renewables such as hydropower.
Two other expert committees will evaluate the JRC opinion over the next three months before the Commission takes its final decision.
Europe is still divided over the subject. France, Hungary, and five other countries recently urged the Commission in a letter to support nuclear energy in policies, including the current sustainable investment taxonomy.
“We are convinced that all available zero and low-emission technologies that contribute to climate neutrality while supporting other energy policy objectives should not only be recognised but also actively supported by the European Union,” the signatories insist.
In France, 70% of energy in the network is nuclear based. Emmanuel Macron committed during his election campaign to reduce the national nuclear energy share to 50% by 2035, a promise to respect the legacy targets of his predecessor, President Hollande. However, he has also said that reductions in nuclear power must be managed in such a way as to retain French energy sovereignty.
France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over €3 billion per year as a result, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Other countries, such as Austria and Germany, and certain environmental groups are opposed to the inclusion of nuclear energy, pointing to the high input costs for construction of nuclear power infrastructure, and the notoriously hazardous waste that results from nuclear fission.
Greenpeace called the independence of the JRC into question, saying it is a structurally pro-nuclear Commission service that was initially set up in 1957 to “create the conditions necessary for the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries.”
“The nuclear industry is desperate for funds as nuclear power is too expensive and new projects are evaporating,” says Greenpeace EU policy adviser Silvia Pastorelli.
Despite having high initial construction costs, as a result of stringent safety requirements, nuclear reactors have become cheaper to build and operate as the technology has developed. They also require far lower ongoing input costs than other power sources, thanks to the enormous energy potential of uranium.
As a result, over the decades-long lifespan of a nuclear reactor the costs become comparable with other sources of power.
Disposal of nuclear waste through underground storage is a solution that is seen to be “appropriate and safe” by the JRC scientists. The report highlights countries using this method, namely France and Finland, which are currently developing the necessary sites for disposal.
The final decision from the Commission will have significant consequences for the nuclear energy industry.
Inclusion on the list of renewable energy sources will entitle nuclear construction projects to favourable financing.
“The big issue for us with the taxonomy is that it will enable eligible companies to have access to bonds and funds that have a lower interest rate,” says Jessica Johnson, communications director at Foratom, the trade association representing the nuclear industry in Brussels.
This would mean that finance costs will be lower if companies have access to these funds, as low interest rates will reduce overall expenditure, Johnson explains.
Another factor impacting the economics of the industry will be oil prices: as they increase, so too will the appeal of using low-carbon nuclear energy as a substitute transition fuel.