Greenwashing Or Viable Solution? Europe Has a Big Decision to Make on Nuclear Power

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  • It is a long-standing dilemma that the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, must resolve in the coming weeks.
  • Ultimately, its decision will have repercussions on its efforts to be a global leader in the area of climate change.

LONDON — The European Union must decide whether nuclear is a clean source of energy, but the decision is tough with countries divided about the right labelling.

Some EU members, notably France, which have big investments in nuclear and are wary of using gas from Russia see the energy resource as a viable option. Other nations, including Germany, believe it is time to move away from it and are worried about nuclear waste.

It is a long-standing dilemma that the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, must resolve in the coming weeks. The commission is due to publish its sustainable finance taxonomy — rules that will help clarify to investors what the bloc sees as green investments — as an attempt to boost financing in these areas.

Ultimately, its decision will have repercussions on its efforts to be a global leader in the area of climate change.

A transition source

"We need more renewables. They are cheaper, carbon-free, and homegrown," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in October.  

However, she added: "We also need a stable source, nuclear, and during the transition, gas."

Her comments increased expectations that her team will announce that nuclear can be included in this cleaner energy mix.

Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, told CNBC Monday that it is "the right decision" for both environmental and political reasons if the commission announces that nuclear is relatively clean.

"What are you going to offer Poland?" he questioned, if nuclear were to be banned in the EU bloc.

Coal dominates the Polish energy sector. It's Poland's main source of power but a major employer — which brings additional economic pressures if the energy source is phased out.

Warsaw has plans to reduce the share of coal and lignite in its electricity production from just under 80% in 2017 to 60% by 2030. Despite the country signing a pledge to rapidly phase out coal production at the COP26 climate summit last week, Poland's target reportedly still remains 2049.

Accelerating this change is challenging, hence, some nations and energy experts see nuclear as a "transition" source of energy.

Cedric O, France's secretary of state for the digital sector, told CNBC Tuesday that nuclear energy "is not an ideological question, it is a mathematical question."

In order to reduce carbon emissions, he said, "you need a basis and you need an energy that is not dependent on the level of sun or on the speed of the wind, you need an energy that is consistent," referring to nuclear as the best option.

Not everybody agrees with this view.

"Opponents to inclusion of nuclear power into the EU green taxonomy, led by Germany, argue that the technology is not suitable to achieve sustainability targets, including establishing a transition to a circular economy," Henning Gloystein, director for energy, climate and resources at consultancy group Eurasia, told CNBC via email.

"The core problem for critics is that there is no solution for long-term storage of nuclear waste. All current solutions are temporary," he added.

The inclusion of nuclear in the EU's green taxonomy has also been criticized by activists.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has said that classifying nuclear as somewhat sustainable "would allow the greenwashing of billions of euros of financing for these activities, despite the high emissions from fossil gas and the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power."

Green image at risk

More broadly, whatever the commission decides will also send a signal to other nations.

The European Commission praises itself for having the most concrete plan on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions — a plan that is still yet to be approved by lawmakers.

The institution has also lobbied other parts of the world, including China, to put forward concrete steps on how they intend to achieve carbon neutrality.

Kirkegaard from the GMF believes that classifying nuclear as somewhat clean will support Europe's efforts to push other nations on the carbon neutrality path.

"They're going to take a hit from climate activists but ironically if you're looking at the EU's ability to promote rapid decarbonization worldwide … they'll have a more complete package to offer other countries," he said.

"The most important challenge," he added, "is not to build new coal-powered plans."

All in all, Henning from Eurasia added that "the opposing views of the EU's two biggest economies and most influential governments [France and Germany] highlights how diverging the paths toward net-zero emissions can be even among policymakers that fundamentally agree on the need for ambitious climate action."

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