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French push to classify nuclear power 'green and sustainable' divides Europe

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Last Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a $1.16 billion program to develop mini-nuclear reactors, which he hopes to export to other countries such as Poland that still rely on coal, one of the worst sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Keeping nuclear alive, Macron said, “is absolutely key because we know that we will continue to need this technology.”

Nuclear supporters hailed Macron’s announcement as signaling a renaissance for the energy source that since the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan has been largely shunned in Western Europe. Even in France, where it provides more than 70 percent of electricity, only half of residents think of nuclear as an asset, though 53 percent find it essential for French energy independence, according to a just-released Orano poll.

The embrace of nuclear power by some leaders comes as the world searches for ways to slash greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change. In June, Bill Gates, who co-founded a high-tech nuclear company, addressed the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., endorsing the imperfect technology as a planetary savior. "We need more nuclear reactors,” Gates told the assembled crowd, “to prevent a climate disaster."

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he delivers a speech during a ceremony on the eve of the Paris International Contemporary Art Fair's opening (FIAC) at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on October 20, 2021. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on Wednesday. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Germany’s minister of the environment strongly disagrees, however. “In the coming years,” Svenja Schulze told Yahoo News, “it will be important to direct large investments to where they are most urgently needed for our climate and environment targets — clean and safe technologies and a climate-friendly infrastructure. This certainly does not include nuclear power.”

Detractors see Macron’s enthusiasm for nuclear power as a threat to the European Green Deal, as the European Union’s wide-reaching plan to address climate change is known. The concern among anti-nuclear EU countries such as Germany, Belgium, Austria, Denmark and Spain was heightened last week when France, along with nine Eastern European countries, began lobbying the EU to include nuclear energy on its recommended list of green and sustainable technologies.

Known as the finance “taxonomy,” the list — which already includes wind, solar and hydropower — is the EU’s green seal of approval for sustainable energy investment, which can help lure private investment and may allow tax breaks and use of EU funds for development.

“If the European Commission were to include nuclear power in its taxonomy, billions of additional euros would end up in an energy policy dead end, instead of being invested in truly sustainable climate action,” Schulze said, adding that it would be a “wrong turn in climate policy” that would cause the taxonomy to “lose both value and credibility.”

Steam rises from cooling towers of the Electricite de France (EDF) nuclear power plant in Belleville-sur-Loire, France October 12, 2021. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
Cooling towers at the Électricité de France nuclear power plant in Belleville-sur-Loire. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

“The inclusion of nuclear” on the approved sustainable energy list “has been a subject of intense debate,” one EU official close to the matter told Yahoo News. “While nuclear energy is consistently acknowledged as a low-carbon energy source, opinions differ notably on the potential impact on other environmental objectives.” Those include the still-unsolved problem of how to dispose of radioactive waste, which may be hazardous for millennia.

That toxic legacy, along with nuclear power’s high startup costs, long construction times and notable risk factors from accidents to potential plots by terrorists, has convinced many analysts in Western Europe that new nuclear plants should be dropped from future energy programs, with investments instead going to renewables like wind and solar, new storage systems, retrofitting old buildings and readying the grid for electric vehicles.

“Nuclear energy is dead. It’s a technology from the last century that is over,” Jens Althoff, director of the Paris office of the German foundation Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, told Yahoo News. “The whole idea of climate protection is to not leave a heavy, problematic heritage to future generations. So why would you choose an energy that does exactly that?”

Raphael Hanoteaux, a senior policy adviser at the Brussels-based energy consultancy E3G, agrees that nuclear has too many drawbacks to be viable. “New nuclear doesn’t have a place in the net-zero framework,” he said. “Decarbonizing power can and should happen without nuclear, which pricewise is totally nonsense. Any new project of nuclear is going to be extremely expensive and won’t be online until the 2030s.” He added that “we have solar, we have wind, we have storage. And it’s cheaper than nuclear — and in 12 to 15 years it will be cheaper still.”

A general view shows solar panels to produce renewable energy at the Urbasolar photovoltaic park in Gardanne, France, June 25, 2018. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)
Solar panels at the Urbasolar photovoltaic park in Gardanne, France. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

Responding to Macron’s announcement, Hanoteaux and others point at the boondoggles of Électricité de France (EDF), the majority state-owned company that builds French nuclear plants and is currently negotiating the sale of a half-dozen French reactors to Poland. “EDF has two flagship projects,” he said. One, in Flamanville, France, broke ground in 2007 — “and was supposed to finish in 2012.” It’s still not running. It is the same for EDF’s other star project, in Finland, which is still not finished after 16 years. Both have gone massively over budget.

Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the Jacques Delors Energy Centre in Paris, also looks askance at EDF’s French project, which employs new pressurized water technology. “The cost of the Flamanville reactor has skyrocketed from the initial 3 billion euros [$3.5 billion] to 19 billion euros [$22 billion] — for a single reactor,” Pellerin-Carlin told Yahoo News, adding that Macron is expected to soon announce “a plan to build six new nuclear power plants” using that same technology.

But while many Western European energy analysts do not endorse investing in new nuclear plants, many question the wisdom of decommissioning existing plants, which normally have a 40-year lifetime, before their time is up. Italy began closing down its nuclear plants after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Germany and Belgium are shuttering the last of their nuclear reactors over the next two years, and Spain and Switzerland are phasing out their plants as well.

A rescue worker sets flag signalling radioactivity in front of Chernobyl nuclear power plant during a drill organized by Ukraine's Emergency Ministry 08 November 2006. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)
A rescue worker sets a flag signaling radioactivity in front of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant during a drill organized by Ukraine's Emergency Ministry in 2006. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

“At this point, shutting down nuclear plants that we already have is slightly insane,” said Thorfinn Stainforth, a low-carbon energy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy in Brussels. “We've invested a lot of money into them already, and nuclear is a low-carbon energy source, it's relatively clean and, in Europe, it's generally well managed; it should be safe. So obviously, as long as it's correctly maintained, there should be no problem for the next decades to keep plants running."

Brussels-based Roland Freudenstein, vice president of the think tank GLOBSEC, thinks the move to decommission all German plants was premature. “It was never debated in the Bundestag,” he noted to Yahoo News. “Three or four days after Fukushima, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided by fiat to phase out all of Germany’s nuclear power stations within a very tight framework. And the biggest joke is Germany is still importing nuclear power from neighboring countries like [the Czech Republic] and France.”

The concern for Stainforth is “the negative effects in Germany that closing nuclear plants has already had in terms of keeping coal plants running. And some of that nuclear capacity is not going to get replaced by renewables; it's going to get replaced by gas. And that's not a good trade, in terms of climate."

The current “energy crunch” in Europe, during a period of record-high temperatures, stagnant winds and increased electricity demand that saw natural gas prices shoot to new highs, has prompted a realization that dependence on natural gas can be hazardous, “especially during this transition period when we know we’re not going to have enough renewables,” said Nicolas Berghmans, climate and energy fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris. “So it makes sense for Eastern European countries,” which are reliant on natural gas and coal, “to look at the nuclear option with more interest.”

A bucket wheel excavator is seen at the Garzweiler coal mine, western Germany, on July 28, 2020. (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)
A bucket wheel excavator at the Garzweiler coal mine in Germany. (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

Pellerin-Carlin agrees that perhaps not one energy formula fits all. “It makes no sense to close down nuclear plants in countries where the majority of people are fine with nuclear,” he said. The issue for him is when the reactors reach the end of their lifetimes, as is the case with much of the nuclear fleet in France. “The big question is, should we spend more public money to develop new reactors or to deploy new renewable energies?” he said, adding that energy investments should take into account the will of the residents. “Does nuclear have a place in the German, Austrian or Italian energy transitions? The answer is clearly no. But could nuclear have a place in countries like Slovakia or Hungary, where the populations are largely favorable to nuclear and there is very limited solar and wind capacity? Yes, absolutely.”

The nuclear issue nevertheless continues to divide those planning energy programs to address climate change. “Some think it’s great and very green,” said Jonathan Stern, distinguished fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “Some people think it’s a disaster and point to Fukushima and Chernobyl. But the important thing to remember is even if countries go for nuclear, it won’t bear fruit for 10 years. And we’ve got so much to do before then.”

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