France is leading a group of ten EU countries pushing for nuclear energy to be labelled ‘green’ as the continent tries to end its dependence on fossil fuels without wrecking the economy.
The group – which includes Poland, Hungary and Finland – argue that nuclear is ‘essential’ to lowering energy costs and ending Europe’s reliance on foreign imports, while also cutting emissions without becoming over-reliant on renewables.
But they are being opposed by another group led by Germany, which gets around 75 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels and stands to benefit from the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia – who argue that it is unsafe.
Pointing to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and 2011 Fukushima meltdown, the nuclear opponents – backed by some environmental campaigners – say the technology cannot be trusted and that plants produce waste which is difficult to dispose of.
The debate comes amid a global energy crisis that has seen supplies of traditional fossil fuels such as coal and gas run low – causing prices to soar while countries such as China and Lebanon suffer blackouts and rationing.
France is leading a group of 10 countries trying to persuade the EU to classify nuclear energy as ‘green’, saying it is ‘essential’ to ending the bloc’s reliance on foreign imports
France – which gets around 70 per cent of its energy from nuclear, has some of the lowest energy costs in Europe, and makes £2.5billion per year as the continent’s largest energy exporter – is leading the charge to have the industry labelled ‘green.’
In a joint letter published at the weekend, French ministers Bruno Le Maire and Agnes Pannier-Runacher argue that nuclear power is ‘safe and innovative’ while also being carbon-free.
Renewable energy is also carbon-free, the pair freely admit, but nuclear is far more reliable and uses technology that has been available for decades.
Under-production of renewable energy, caused by calm winds in Europe, is thought to be at least partially responsible for its current power crisis.
‘[Nuclear] is a clean, secure, independent and competitive source of energy,’ they write in a letter published this weekend in major European newspapers.
‘It offers Europeans the chance to… create thousands of qualified jobs, to strengthen our environmental ambitions and to ensure the… energy autonomy of Europe,’
The letter was also signed by ministers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania.
Like France, most of the signatories generate significant amounts of power from nuclear – ranging from 30 to 50 per cent – and have committed to investing billions more in the technology.
Only two – Poland and Croatia – currently have no nuclear power plants.
However, Poland has invested some £30billion in nuclear with its first plant due to be commissioned in 2033.
Meanwhile Croatia shares ownership of a nuclear plant in neighbouring Slovenia, from which it draws 10 per cent of its power, and has backed plans for a second reactor at the same site
The group is being opposed by the likes of Germany – Europe’s largest coal producer (pictured) which gets 75 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels – which argue it is unsafe
Backed by green campaign groups, the anti-nuclear lobby point to disaster such as Chernobyl (pictured) to argue the technology can’t be trusted and say it produces harmful waste
By contrast, the opposition group – which includes Germany, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain – generate little or no power from nuclear.
The only two countries which do have nuclear plants – Germany and Spain – have both committed to phasing them out, with Germany’s due to shut next year.
Austria and Denmark both generate most of their power from renewables such as hydropower and wind, while Luxembourg imports 95 per cent of its energy which is mostly generated from fossil fuels.
All five countries have committed to reducing their carbon emissions, but plan to do it using renewables – with Austria aiming to become 100 per cent renewable by 2030, mostly relying on hydropower generated from rivers.
The debate around nuclear energy is happening against the backdrop of the European Green Deal, which aims to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050 in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
As part of the deal, the EU has published a list of what activities can be considered ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’.
In the near future, the bloc will force companies and investors to disclose what share of their activities fall into this category in an attempt to shame the worst offenders.
Nuclear energy is not currently on the list of ‘green’ activities – though the EU is consulting on it and plans to make a decision before the end of the year.
A scientific paper published by the bloc’s advisers earlier this year found that nuclear energy produces no more carbon than popular renewables.
However, campaigners are still pushing back on safety grounds and argue that renewable energy is the better solution.
Europe’s energy supply has shot to the top of news agendas in recent weeks, prompted by a severe gas shortage.
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) is due to announce a major energy policy soon in which nuclear is expected to feature heavily, while outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) is being lobbied to open a new gas pipeline with Russia
The shortage – caused by low production last year during Covid shutdowns and a spike in demand this year as they eased – has caused prices to shoot up amid warnings of blackouts.
European leaders have been forced to turn to Russia, sitting on the world’s largest gas reserves, for a top-up – but supplies have not been forthcoming.
That has prompted accusations that Vladimir Putin is deliberately throttling supplies for political leverage, as his energy minister suggested that opening the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would help resolve the crisis.
The pipe – which was completed earlier this year – would bring gas into Europe via Germany, bypassing Poland and Ukraine and depriving them of revenues.
But experts say Russia’s already-existing pipes have more than enough spare capacity, and Nord Stream 2 is simply being used as a bargaining chip.
The issue of the pipeline is expected to top the agenda when EU leaders meet Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who is firmly opposed to it.
‘This summit will take place in a very tense atmosphere,’ said Leonid Litra, an analyst at New Europe Centre, a Kiev-based think tank.
Ukraine – in conflict with Russia since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea – wants to ensure it will remain a key transit country for gas because it makes around $1billion-per-year maintaining the route.
European Council leader Charles Michel and European Commission leader Ursula von der Leyen will try to ‘reassure’ the Ukrainian president that Ukraine will remain a transit country, an official said.
President Putin stressed last week that his priority was not to put Ukraine ‘in a difficult position’, but to be an ‘absolutely reliable partner’ of Europe.
At the same time the Kremlin chief said that Ukrainian gas pipelines had not been repaired ‘for decades’ and ramping up supplies via the post-Soviet country could lead to ‘negative consequences.’
Shortages of fossil fuels – caused by Covid lockdowns – have driven steep rises in the price of gas in Europe amid warnings that bills could rise significantly
‘Something can burst there at any moment,’ Putin said.
Moscow has not booked additional gas transit capacity via Ukraine to Europe for October, raising concerns.
Russia denies any pressure, saying it needs to fill its own reserves for the winter before sending supplies on to Europe.
Since 2014, Ukraine’s army has been fighting pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Kiev accuses Europe of timidity when it comes to Russia, whether on gas, military cooperation or Ukraine’s prospects for integration into NATO and the European Union.
For its part, Europe has repeatedly called on Kiev to commit greater efforts to combating graft and reforming Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt judicial system.
‘We are going to encourage our Ukrainian friends to go a little faster,’ the European official said.
The summit will also be an opportunity for Europeans to ‘reaffirm their commitment to strengthen Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU’, the official added.
‘There is tension and grievances on both sides’, and Ukraine feels ‘ignored,’ said Litra of the New Europe Centre think tank.