Debate: is nuclear clean enough for the EU’s green funding?

JP Casey and Umar Ali 16 January 2020 (Last Updated June 18th, 2020 14:45)

In September, the European Council ruled that nuclear power is eligible for an EU scheme intended to fund green power sources. While nuclear lacks the environmental footprint of energy sources such as coal and oil, its green credentials have been questioned by countries such as Germany and Austria, who object to funding being diverted towards nuclear power from renewable energy sources. JP Casey and Umar Ali consider the two sides of the debate.

Debate: is nuclear clean enough for the EU’s green funding?
Cattenom is the third biggest nuclear power plant in France. Image courtesy of Stefan Kühn.

JP Casey: Great in theory but many drawbacks are beyond the EU’s scope

Nuclear power presents an excellent opportunity for the world to reduce its reliance on fossil fuel-powered energy sources without compromising access to energy, and will undoubtedly form part of the world’s energy mix in the future. However, the inherently dangerous nature of nuclear power, and the EU’s current struggles to reach its own renewable energy targets, mean that the time is not right for nuclear to be considered eligible for Europe’s green energy funding.

When the EU first announced that nuclear would be considered eligible for this manner of funding, there was significant opposition, with Germany, Luxembourg and Austria saying that the power source “cannot be considered either safe or sustainable”. The spectre of Chernobyl and Fukushima hangs over nuclear power, and it is true that in exceptional circumstances, malfunctions at nuclear power stations pose a significant risk to human health.

The management of nuclear waste is also an issue, posing environmental and economic challenges. Germany aims to decommission all of its nuclear plants by 2022, but will have to spend at least €36bn doing so, as waste storage measures implemented as recently as the 1970s prove inadequate. With issues such as radioactive waste eroding and destroying the facilities intended to contain it, increased nuclear production could require exponentially complex and expensive storage solutions, with countries and companies forced to experiment with new waste disposal techniques, only to have to tear them down and try a new approach within a generation.

In a vacuum, these challenges are difficult, certainly, but could be expected to be overcome. However, there is simply not enough money, and not enough time, for the EU to experiment with these unstable and uncertain technologies. The EU reports that it will require investment into renewable power of €180bn a year to hit its 2030 targets of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases and EDF reports that renovating France’s nuclear facilities alone will cost almost €100bn by 2030; by including nuclear power in its green funding, the EU could be increasing its total energy bill by more than half.

This is especially significant as the EU could struggle to meet its renewable energy targets, without additional resources being diverted to nuclear projects. While renewable energy accounted for 17.52% of the group’s energy mix in 2017, the rate of growth has slowed to 0.44% growth per year, compared to the 0.83% growth benchmark needed to reach the 2020 goals.

Furthermore, the EU reported in 2019 that the bloc’s production of excess renewable energy – energy produced by a country in excess of its minimum contribution targets – fell from 27,033 kilotons of oil equivalent (ktoe) in 2014 to 22,752ktoe in 2018. While this does leave the EU on pace to reach many of its energy targets, the general slowdown in the rate of growth suggests countries are struggling to maintain the pace of innovation and clean energy investment established at the start of the decade. Introducing nuclear power to the list of these countries’ energy obligations will only further affect this rate of progress.

Umar Ali: A green power worth investing in

Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy, and offers a more consistent energy output compared to renewable sources such as solar and wind power, which are dependent on the weather and climate.

By investing in nuclear power, countries and energy companies can compensate for dips in the energy grid caused by the intermittence of renewable power, allowing a low-carbon grid to be developed without relying on fossil fuels to ensure constant and reliable energy.

Conversely, decisions made by countries such as Germany to phase out their nuclear infrastructures but continue production through fossil fuels facilitates the development of these massive carbon emitters, which will only exacerbate the global climate crisis.

As International Energy Agency executive director Faith Birol said in May 2019: “Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder.”

“Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security. But unless the barriers it faces are overcome, its role will soon be on a steep decline worldwide.”

Decommissioning existing nuclear facilities also takes time and resources that could otherwise be used in reducing emissions, with the decommissioning process itself also being very energy-intensive and reliant on fossil fuels.

According to Eurostat data, nuclear energy produced around 25% of the EU’s electricity in 2017 and is the leading low-carbon source of electricity in Europe ahead of hydropower. Nuclear power also has a 10.15% share in the global energy mix, which represents the important role nuclear has to play in the world’s green energy transition.

Developments in nuclear technology are also paving the way for modes of green energy production that had never been considered before. The advancement of nuclear fusion is particularly exciting; with small-scale generators expected to start production in 2025, the “holy grail” of energy is closer than it has ever been, and the UK could be poised to lead a nuclear fusion revolution.

Molten salt reactors and small modular reactors are also being developed to make nuclear power safer and cost-effective, reducing the time needed to develop nuclear power infrastructures and making nuclear power more commercially viable.

The biggest roadblock nuclear energy faces is concerns over safety, with concerns over another Chernobyl or Fukushima looming over discussions of nuclear power.

However, these incidents were exceptional circumstances, and statistically nuclear energy is substantially safer than methods of energy production such as oil and gas.

According to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear energy is in some ways safer than solar and wind, due to the increased risk in extracting and producing the materials needed for these facilities.

Describing the perception of nuclear as unsafe in this report, researcher Herbert Inhaber said: “First, we tend to ignore all parts of the energy cycle except the last, most visible aspect, and secondly, we forget that risk must be compared in terms of unit energy output.”

In addition, while nuclear waste does present problems with storage and disposal, 90% of the world’s nuclear waste is at a low level of radioactivity

The European Commission’s decision to make nuclear power eligible for green funding is not just a move to support nuclear energy as a green source of energy, it will also provide a means for countries to remove themselves from harmful oil and gas infrastructures and make investment in renewable technology more palatable to energy multinationals.