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View from Brussels: Nuclear power set for EU boost

The European Union is still trying to decide what energy technologies should be eligible for a green financing label, as Brussels tries to establish sustainability criteria for investments. After much toing and froing, nuclear power looks set to be included.

Hundreds of billions of euros will be available in the coming years for energy projects, transport systems, digital innovations and more, under the EU’s Green Deal. Brussels has been working on financing rules to guide that cash where it is really needed.

For some technologies, like coal power and oil boilers, which have an indisputably negative impact on the environment, the task is relatively easy. They will be precluded from the green label and investors will be less likely to stump up any financing.

But for natural gas and atomic energy, the process of drafting the so-called ‘sustainable finance taxonomy’ - a classic example of EU jargon-making - has proved to be far more complex.

Many EU countries that are reliant on coal want to switch to gas in order to bridge over to renewables, so want the taxonomy to reflect that. National governments recently rejected a proposal by the bloc’s executive branch that did not include enough gas loopholes.

“I want to be crystal clear: fossil fuels have no viable future,” EU climate boss Frans Timmermans said last week. “That also goes for fossil gas, in the longer run.” However, a new draft of the rules is likely to include gas more, under certain strict conditions.

Nuclear falls largely into the same bracket: predominantly Central and Eastern European countries want to invest in reactors to reduce their reliance on coal, while France - now the EU’s nuclear champion after Brexit - wants to sell that technology to willing buyers.

The taxonomy is only open to technologies that “do no significant harm” to the environment and because of nuclear’s complexities, especially from a societal point of view, the European Commission decided to kick the can over to its science division.

Now, a report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) is set to conclude this week that nuclear satisfies enough criteria to qualify for the green label, in what has already been hailed by the nuclear industry as a great step forward by the EU.

Crucially, the report says that there is no “science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies.” 

The main issue that had caused consternation was nuclear waste, the main polluting by-product of fission, and its disposal. The JRC found that storing it in deep underground caves is “appropriate and safe”.

FORATOM, the main body of the European nuclear industry, said that “this is the assessment we have been waiting for” and that “measures exist to prevent the occurrence of the potentially harmful impacts thanks to existing technology”.

It is by no means the end of the story, as the JRC report now must be scrutinised over the next few months before the Commission makes a final decision. 

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace were already unhappy with the Commission delegating to the JRC, given its existing ties to the nuclear industry. Part of the centre's budget is provided under the EU's nuclear treaty, EURATOM.

There is plenty of lobbying left to do on the taxonomy as a whole. Building renovation aficionados want insulation materials recategorised so that manufacturers do not have to prove every time how much energy savings their products make possible.

The fight over gas will not end soon either, although it is difficult to imagine a solution that makes everyone happy, given the polar-opposite asks of the pro- and anti-gas camps.

As ever with EU policy-wrangling, the devil is in the detail and it takes a very long time to get anywhere with it.

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