On 27 May the European Commission (EC) put forward its proposal for a major post-Covid-19 recovery plan. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament that what underpinned the programme was a determination “to hold governments more accountable for fighting climate change and saving our nature.” David Lowry explores what this means for the continent’s climate policy and the role of nuclear energy.
The Commission presented what it termed a “powerful, modern and revamped long-term” EU budget, boosted by ‘Next Generation EU’ – an emergency temporary recovery instrument, to help repair the immediate economic and social damage brought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall its will be worth EUR 750 billion, and will be in addition to the revamped long-term multi-annual EU budget of EUR 1.1 trillion.
This programme came nearly nine months after von der Leyen had first announced the framework for the EU’s ‘Green New Deal’ on 10 September 2019 as she set out her presidential vision; and six months since details were unveiled in the 24 page communication document: ‘The European Green Deal’.
These ideas have now been incorporated into ‘Next Generation EU’, the fundamentals of which comprise “a massive renovation wave” of buildings and infrastructure and a more circular economy, bringing local jobs; rolling out renewable energy projects, especially wind, solar and kick-starting a clean hydrogen economy in Europe; cleaner transport and logistics; and strengthening the Just Transition Fund to support re-skilling, helping businesses create new economic opportunities.
After the details were unveiled on 11 December last year, pro-nuclear interests – such as the Czech Prime minister Andrej Babis – argued in the European Council that nuclear should be part of the EC’s programme in making its economy ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2050.
Currently coal-dependent Poland did not agree to the plan, but concessions on nuclear energy were enough for the Czech Republic and Hungary to give their approval, backed by France, which relies on nuclear for more than 60% of its power. Stand-out member states against nuclear’s inclusion comprised inter alia Luxembourg, Austria and Germany.
Early in 2020, a related development opened the nuclear argument once more within the higher echelons of EU politics. On 14 January, the Commission unveiled its plan for at least EUR 1 trillion (USD 1.1 trillion) in sustainable investments over the next decade. The European Green Deal Investment Plan (EGDIP) is the investment pillar of the Green Deal.
But it became clear that energy systems “transition fund money” under the plan would not be made available to help finance construction of new nuclear power plants. Only recently, the Commission said the target requires significant investment from the EU and the national public sector, as well as the private sector. The EGDIP aims to mobilise at least EUR 1 trillion of sustainable investments, via leverage, over the next decade.
The Commission also launched the Just Transition Mechanism (JTM), aimed at providing “tailored financial and practical support to help workers and generate the necessary investments in those areas,” consisting of three main sources of financing. 1) A JTF which will receive EUR 7.5 billion of fresh EU funds, above the Commission’s proposal for the next long-term EU budget. 2) a dedicated just transition scheme under InvestEU to mobilise up to EUR 45 billion of investments and 3) a private sector loan facility with the European Investment Bank backed by the EU budget. The new recovery plan proposes to even boost the JTF up to EUR 40 billion.
EU nuclear lobbyists, Foratom. objected to the exclusion of these funds being used for nuclear power plants, pointing out that several Member States had made it clear that in order to commit to the 2050 decarbonisation targets then they must be allowed to invest in nuclear power. “The benefits of transitioning workers from the coal into the nuclear industry have already been demonstrated in both France and the UK”, Foratom Director General Yves Desbazeille asserted.
Then, on 9 March, in a linked development, the Commission published its rules for sustainable finance – which de facto excluded nuclear from the Sustainable Finance EU Taxonomy “at this stage”, stating that “it was not possible to conclude the nuclear energy value chain does not cause significant harm to other environmental objectives on the time-scales in question.” After the EU Taxonomy Technical Expert Group (TEG) delivered their contested final recommendations to the Commission, the nuclear industry predictably reacted with a strong push-back.
By counterpoint, some 53 pan-EU organisations, institutions and NGOs, signed a declaration in support of the TEG conclusions sent to all relevant EC decision makers in early April.
Declaration co-ordinator, the international Nuclear Consulting Group, observed: “This is a big deal. It has profound implications for nuclear investment in Europe and, by implication, internationally. Basically, the EC found that nuclear is, essentially, unsustainable.”
NCG argued further that “at the heart of the nuclear issue are differing views on how to apply foresight, precaution and responsibility in the context of the relative economics of nuclear, the uncertain role of nuclear in combating climate change, the possibility of accidents, the consequence of those accidents, the production of highly problematic waste, and whether there exists a role for nuclear within the swiftly expanding renewable energy evolution,” adding “For nuclear to be considered a feasible option, new reactor build should be able to be completed economically, efficiently and on-time. However, practical experience suggests otherwise. Nuclear new-build represents a high-risk technical, regulatory and investment option, with a marked tendency for significant delay and cost over-run.
NCG concluded stressing “When considering the entire nuclear life-cycle (including mining, transport, enrichment, plant construction, operation, dismantling, and waste management), nuclear is significantly more carbon intensive than renewable power. In addition, the production of radioactive waste, including the unresolved issue of nuclear waste management, places nuclear technology counter to the key ‘Do No Significant Harm’ (DNSH) principle. This is because, despite 70 years of operation and research, the nuclear industry has yet to provide proven and sustainable methods of management that neither increases radioactive waste volumes nor decreases the potential risk to the environment.”
This point was strongly reinforced by retired German MEP, Rebecca Harms, formerly co-leader of the Green Group in the European Parliament, speaking at an hbs-organized virtual forum on nuclear waste co-ordinated from Prague on 4 June, to launch the World Nuclear Waste Report in central Europe. Radioactive waste is, she said, one of the worst problems ever created by humankind- especially long-lived, high- level waste, the storage for which is currently running out across Europe.
In an argument pointedly disagreeing with the Czech premier, Harms argued it was irresponsible to build any more nuclear plants while no country has yet – nearly 70 years after the first nuclear power plant was turned on – opened and operated a repository for the disposal of this toxic waste.
She stressed that the ‘polluter pays’ principle had been applied nowhere, and no country had embarked on a nuclear power programme with a radwaste strategy developed in advance.
Indeed, the situation is, in my view, akin to taking off in an aircraft without bothering to install the landing gear: the conclusion is predictably catastrophic!
Speaking on a global webinar on ‘Remaking the World after Coronavirus’, on 12 June, former head of the UN-sponsored global climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueras – a very experienced Costa Rican diplomat – argued that the recovery programme “will be valued between $15-20 trillion of new global investment across the next decade”.
She insisted that if this money were to be invested into low carbon companies with green characteristics, thereby it would “privilege companies to be carbon efficient,” and concluded that by thinking long-term, this would be “critical investment over the critical decade.”
A link to a related hbs online conference on 100 percent renewables and the European Green Deal on 15 June 2020 can be found here. The presented study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) is available at this link.
Context: Aligning policy targets of the European Green Deal with the “Next generation EU” green recovery programme will be crucial. On 15 June, the DIW Berlin presented their findings on the realisation of a fully renewables powered European economy in a comprehensive study entitled “Make the European Green Deal Real”. The study focusses on tightening the climate protection targets for 2030 as a condition for full decarbonisation in 2050, as well as on strengthening European cooperation.
Dr David Lowry
This article first appeared in Energy Transition.