The Great Debate: Why is Europe so Divided on Nuclear Energy?

As the prices of fossil fuels rise and Europe moves forward in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear power is at the center of the renewable energy debate. The nuclear question had been especially divisive in the European Union, with countries taking divergent stands on the issue. In light of the European Commission’s decision to cut all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the development of sustainable power solutions is now a pressing matter. Since Brussels has pledged to fund sustainability efforts, the question of whether nuclear energy is green or not remains relevant. Certainly, incorporating nuclear energy into the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities would allow private business owners, political leaders, and energy companies to meet increasingly high environmental standards. However, not all countries are convinced that nuclear power is a sufficient carbon-free alternative to the ongoing energy crisis.

What is the EU Taxonomy? 

The EU taxonomy for sustainable activities is a comprehensive classification system that categorizes all environmentally sound economic activities. The system offers a sense of security to investors, ensuring that they are not financially supporting any greenwashing activities. The list also allows governments and private businesses to be climate-friendly in their operations. Most importantly, the system helps to navigate investors and provides them with incentives to fund sustainable initiatives.

The EU Commission has adopted the Taxonomy Delegated Act, which permitted certain nuclear and gas energy activities to be included in the classification system. However, in June of this year, Members of the European Parliament from the two committees responsible for the proposal opposed adding nuclear and gas to the list. Even though the EU Commission’s research center proclaimed nuclear power to be “a safe, low-carbon energy source comparable to wind and hydropower in terms of its contribution to climate change”. It is evident that classifying nuclear as green would encourage investments, increasing the number of nuclear plants. However, some EU member states have objections to the following scenario.

The Nuclear Debate

Nuclear energy is a divisive issue, splitting Europe into two opposing camps. However, this is not an even split; the majority of countries in Europe support the use of nuclear power. Yet, five EU-member states – Germany, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, and Luxemburg – spark opposition. The following countries merged their efforts to prevent nuclear energy activities from entering the EU taxonomy system. The disagreement led to a series of arguments; what are the differences between the two opposing views, and can a compromise be reached?

Proponents of Nuclear Energy

France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland urged the EU Commission to add nuclear plants and waste storage to the list of environmentally sound economic activities. France, in particular, is taking the lead. The country has 56 nuclear reactors, becoming the EU’s prominent atomic power. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that France will continue investing in nuclear power stations. It will also start building new plants in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions, cut costs, and be energy-independent. “If we want to pay for our energy at reasonable rates and not depend on foreign countries, we must both continue to save energy and invest in the production of carbon-free energy on our soil,” said Macron.

Other Western states, including Sweden, Spain, and Belgium, have also favored nuclear power plants. All the while continuously developing other renewable energy sources. The Eastern bloc had also stepped up its nuclear power activities. Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary are paving the way. It is no surprise, as nuclear reactors currently provide a quarter of the EU’s electricity. Replacing these large-scale supply efforts with other CO2-free energy sources is a considerable challenge. Similarly, unlike intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, nuclear plants can produce energy around the clock. Hence, nuclear energy is much more reliable than most other alternatives to fossil fuels.

Opposition to Nuclear Power

Germany, Luxemburg, Portugal, Austria, and Denmark expressed their opposition to the EU’s pro-nuclear sentiment during the UN climate summit in Glasgow. Environment ministers from Germany and Austria were especially vocal in their statements regarding the issue. German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said, “Nuclear power cannot be a solution in the climate crisis…It is too risky, too slow, and too expensive for the crucial decade in the fight against climate change”. On a similar note, Austrian minister Leonore Gewessler noted, “Just because something is not quite so bad doesn’t mean it’s good”.

The five nations opposing nuclear power plants have different reasons for their disapproval. In Germany, the anti-nuclear sentiments were largely motivated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Japanese Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was severely damaged after an earthquake triggered a tsunami in the region.

Similarly, Austria had been moving away from building nuclear energy stations since the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster. The position was supported by the nationwide referendum. Austria is also extremely self-sufficient. Notably, it generates over 75% of its energy from renewable sources. The country warned that if the EU would add nuclear to the taxonomy list, it would file a case with the Court of Justice of the EU.

Portugal is largely opposing nuclear energy plants due to the ongoing disagreements with Spain. The Tagus River, used by the Spanish state for cooling power plants, flows into Portugal. Denmark has historically opposed utilizing nuclear power plants. Anti-nuclear public opinions and raising concerns about nuclear waste disposal largely influence the government’s position. Hence, the prospects of an environmental disaster and the concerns over radioactive waste management prompted criticism from the opposition.

Is Nuclear That Green?

Nuclear power plants release no carbon dioxide into the environment. France, the EU nuclear energy leader, has the lowest emissions record among the leading EU economies. In contrast to France, Germany produces six times more per-capita emissions from generating electricity. Primarily because Germany still heavily relies on fossil fuels for its energy production. Germany is also one of the few states that increased its use of coal in 2021. On the other hand, many other European nations have decreased their coal consumption.

Germany, Austria, and other nuclear opponents believe that renewable energy sources are the way to secure the EU’s energy needs. However, despite the technological advancements, there is no viable storage solution for the times when intermittent sources cannot generate power. Thus, nuclear plants serve as a “firm” backup. Researchers suggest that the air pollution from the use of fossil fuels led to over 8 million deaths in 2018. In contrast, the number of deaths from nuclear disasters has not been nearly as high; fatalities have ranged in thousands.

Overall, nuclear energy is a useful tool in the fight against climate change. Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, stated, “Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that can contribute to attaining carbon neutrality and hence help to mitigate climate change”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report emphasizing the importance of nuclear power in mitigating the rise in global temperature levels. The study predicts that by 2030, the use of nuclear power should rise by a significant amount, ranging from 60% to 106%.

The Economic Issue

While prices for renewable energy sources have been falling in recent years, the cost of nuclear power has increased. Consequently, the anti-nuclear coalition has turned to renewable sources of energy as a cheaper solution to climate change. Jonathan Stern, a researcher at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said, “All these other technologies are advancing rapidly and they’re all getting cheaper, while nuclear isn’t advancing and it’s getting more expensive.” Emmanuel Macron’s ambition to build large and small new-generation nuclear reactors comes at a high price. Experts estimate that the project’s costs will start at an astounding €50 billion. This is an economic commitment that will considerably influence many European nations. However, nuclear energy lobbyists suggest that while Europe is moving away from Russia’s fossil fuel, the fluctuations in oil and gas prices do not affect nuclear energy costs. 

It’s Political

Nuclear power is a highly political issue in Europe. The current ruling coalition member in Germany, the Green Party, has been outspoken in its opposition to the EU’s use of nuclear energy. In 2022, Germany announced its plans to permanently close down its remaining three nuclear plants. Despite the spike in oil and gas prices, Germany does not want to adjust its course. Robert Habeck, German Vice-Chancellor and a Green Party leader, said that closing nuclear power plants is based on “ideological” grounds and will continue as planned.

At the same time, Germany is considering partnerships with Qatar and UAE despite ongoing human rights violations. The member of the Green Party mentioned that “there are political identity, cultural, and political risk components [to our continued opposition to nuclear]…And in a situation of crisis like now, there are just so many compromises you can sell”. Despite this, the parties in favor of reinstating the closed nuclear plants are vocal about their opinions. According to a recent poll, 60% of German citizens believe that the use of nuclear power plants is necessary in light of the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, Thomas O’Donnell, German nuclear physicist, said, “It would be suicide for the Greens to say we were wrong about nuclear power, so they’re forced to continue with the old battle plan”.

What’s Next for Europe?

The relevance of nuclear energy is increasing due to its environmental qualities, assisting European states in lowering carbon dioxide emissions. However, as the issue is divisive and political, the EU is yet to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. With France on one side of the coin and Germany on the other – the pressure is extremely high. Both states are major European economies with a lot of political influence. Until either Germany or France prevails in this debate, it is unlikely that we will see a comprehensive EU plan on the use of nuclear energy.