The Nuclear Debate and Energy Taxonomy in the European Union

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The new EU energy Taxonomy Regulation, presented at the beginning of 2022, includes certain nuclear activities. Since the Taxonomy regulates financial support schemes, it might change the profile of the EU energy system, displacing energy transition investments in favor of nuclear energy. The following text looks at the history of nuclear energy development in the European Union and provides an overview of the key debates between proponents and opponents of nuclear power for energy generation in the EU.  

The European Union  (EU) Action Plan for Financing Sustainable Growth and its EU Taxonomy are the key documents of the  EU Green Deal, which is a package of measures to preserve Europe’s natural environment and improve the well-being and health of citizens by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and investing in pioneering research and innovation.

The EU taxonomy is a classification system that establishes criteria for classifying various economic activities as “sustainable” based on how they contribute to environmental objectives. As part of preparation for the Taxonomy Regulation, a Taxonomy Complementary Delegated Act was drafted, which included certain nuclear and gas developments in these “sustainable” activities.

Predictably, this inclusion was controversial. While the European Commission has not adhered to a particular viewpoint about nuclear energy in the last decades, the  inclusion of nuclear activities in the Taxonomy Complementary Delegated Act means that the European Commission sees nuclear facilities as functional for energy transition and achieving climate neutrality in the next 30 years. The act will likely open new opportunities in the realm of nuclear energy, as energy taxonomy guides finance and mobilizes investments solely toward economic activities compliant with it. The new taxonomy has consequently generated a considerable uproar within the Union, reigniting debate about nuclear power and reinvigorating pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear positions.

Background

Nuclear power plants make use of nuclear power through a process called fission, which is based on the splitting of atoms of the heaviest naturally-occurring elements. Generally, uranium and plutonium  are selected for use as fissile elements (nuclear fuels). Nuclear heat, which is thermal energy obtained from the fission reactions, is used to produce steam and run a turbine for electricity generation. Generally, about one-third of all nuclear heat generated is used for producing electricity; the majority is lost, except for a small portion used for urban and agriculture heating.

A nuclear power plant consumes a large amount of water, used for two distinct processes: plant operation and heat dissipation (cooling water). The cooling water comes from a large body of water (whether it be a sea, lake, river or man-made reservoir), and is also re-discharged into it at a slightly higher temperature. For this reason most nuclear power plants are sited adjacent to an abundant water source is available (near natural reservoirs) with sufficiently low ambient temperatures. Using water from existing bodies of water makes the cooling process more cost-effective, making nuclear power plants economically comparable to coal/gas power plants generation. Depending on the reactor and cooling system design, the water consumed is typically  35–65 million L of water/day in a nuclear power plant, between 20% and 83% more than coal/gas-fired plants with the same capacity. Water management represents a sensitive and vital aspect of nuclear power plant deployment, and it is subjected to specific regulations that tend to limit the water withdrawal and discharge into natural reservoirs due to environmental considerations.

Nuclear reactors are the largest source of radioactive waste in the civilian sector. This waste includes the spent fuel and/or reprocessed or unused fissile material. Radioactive waste differs from other waste types because it contains unstable components due to their radioactive decay. As safely disposing and isolating radioactive waste is imperative for ensuring public health and environmental safety, managing nuclear waste disposal has become the Achilles heel of nuclear power and a controversial topic for nuclear policy.

Civil nuclear power and nuclear electricity production in the EU

The development of civil nuclear power in Europe started with the Rome Treaty in 1957, when EURATOM (European Atomic Energy Community) was founded by six countries: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The creation of EURATOM followed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), established by the same countries in 1951 to advance the economic and political integration of Western Europe as an act of resistance to communism and the Soviet bloc. The EURATOM initiatives had the technological and political support of the United States from its inception. As global nuclear power initiatives continued to develop, including uranium explorations,  European countries carried out nuclear activities during the 1960s, mainly to gain adequate technical expertise, decrease the dependence on US manufacturing and explore new reactor models. The United Kingdom (UK) and France were the first countries in Western Europe to develop civil nuclear energy and implement specific policies.

As a consequence of the oil crisis of the early 1970s, many Member States moved toward nuclear energy and started to develop commercial nuclear power plants. During those years, nuclear waste and its management gained public attention and came under discussion as a critical issue,  affecting policy in some States of  the EU-15 (European Union of 15 Members) as Germany.

However, the serious accident at the Three Mile Island plant in the US in 1979 made some EU-15 States deviate from their initial ambitions, and nuclear power faced public opposition in Austria and Germany, leading to a reconsideration of policy. Moreover, due to the disaster in Chernobyl (Ukraine) in 1986, some European countries, including Germany and  Italy,  approved nuclear phase-out policies. Only Italy took its nuclear plans to completion. European countries reconsidered nuclear policies and decisions once again after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident in Japan. Induced by the  Fukushima disaster, the EU Commission pressed for the reassessment of all EU nuclear power plants to prevent similar incidents.

Despite the abovementioned setbacks, from 1990 to 2004, the number of reactors in operation in the EU increased, and the total amount of electricity produced by nuclear power plants rose by 26.9%, reaching its peak in 2004. Between 2004 and 2006 the general trend for nuclear electricity production stabilized before it started declining. Between 2006 and 2020, gross nuclear power electricity production decreased by 25.2%. Germany registered the most precipitous drop (-61.5%), followed by Sweden (-26.5%), Belgium (-26.2%), France (-21.4%), Bulgaria (-14.7), Slovakia (-14.3%) and Spain (-3%). Despite the general negative trend, between 2006 and 2020, other countries increased their nuclear electricity production, such as Romania (>100%), Hungary (+19.3%), the Netherlands (+17.8%), the Czech Republic (+15.3%), Slovenia (+14.5%) and Finland (+1.7%) (Figure 1, Source: Eurostat).

Figure 1: EU Gross nuclear electricity production (in Gigawatt hours, GWh ) from 1990 to 2020.  Most significant production trends are portrayed (representation developed by the author using Eurostat data )

Today, nuclear power represents a crucial source of electricity in the EU. As reported by Eurostat, in 2020, nuclear power accounted for 25% of the EU’s total electricity production, and 106 nuclear reactors were in operation in 13 Member States at the end of the year; the most prominent producer was France (Figure 2), with 52% of the EU total nuclear energy production, followed by Germany and Spain with 9% each, and Sweden with 7%.

Figure 2:  EU Member States with Nuclear electricity production (Source: Eurostat)

While EU State Members individually decide whether to include nuclear power in their electricity-generation mix, issues such as nuclear safety and nuclear waste are addressed at higher echelons. Already in 1959, the EURATOM Members defined the basic rules and standards for the health protection of workers and the public against the dangers presented by radiation (articles 30 and 31 of the EURATOM Treaty). The EU Commission has since continued to work with EURATOM to reach a high uniform safety standard in nuclear power generation for all Member States. These standard rules are revised regularly and have been extended to additional European Union countries. The Nuclear Safety Directive of 2009 required Member  States to uphold certain practices to ensure public protection from radiation in normal circumstances. Moreover, the directive requires EU Members to establish a national legislative and regulatory framework for the safety of nuclear installations. Indeed, the ultimate responsibility for nuclear safety in EU member states rests with the nuclear utilities and license holders within their territory.

The different nuclear powers’ attitudes in the EU

The responsibility for ensuring safety complicates nuclear power deployment; it makes many countries cautious about nuclear energy or even keeps them away from it. Furthermore, as stated, over the years, the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima cast their shadow over nuclear power and discouraged its implementation for energy production.

Historically, there has been no univocal European viewpoint on nuclear power. Rather, Member States have had their own opinions and approaches toward nuclear energy that reflect different national energy trajectories.

Based on the energy policy, the parties’ consensus, the public acceptance of the nuclear policy, and the scale of nuclear-operating infrastructures, some Member States, such as France, always showed a strongly positive opinion about nuclear energy, while others like Spain had a weakly positive standpoint. Others, such as Austria, always had a strongly negative position and banned nuclear energy altogether, while Germany gradually changed its view on nuclear energy and started phasing it out

France built its first commercial nuclear power plant in 1963, but it was during the oil embargo in the 1970s that French nuclear power started to develop under the motto “France does not have oil, but it has ideas.” Since then, France has never changed its mind about nuclear energy, and nuclear power capacity rapidly expanded, even as anti-nuclear sentiments were increasing across the EU. Today, France is the largest producer of nuclear energy in the EU, with 56 operating reactors that produced 353.833 GWh in 2020; around 70% of its electricity comes from nuclear power, and worldwide, France is the largest net exporter of electricity thanks to the low cost of nuclear generation. (Source: World Nuclear Association). Like France, Hungary and Finland are resolutely committed to nuclear energy for their electricity generation mix.

Germany initially moved to nuclear power since it felt insecure about its energy supplies during the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War in 1973. However, German public opinion against nuclear since that time has been increasingly negative. The last nuclear power plant commissioned in Germany was in 1989. Between 1998 and 2005, the government coalition of the Social Democratic Party and Greens party, also known as the Red-Green government, made nuclear power a central issue for policy and, in light of the Chernobyl accident, it decided to phase out all nuclear power plants over the next thirty years. Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the center-right government, headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, announced the decommissioning of nuclear power plants by 2022. The new energy policy, known as the Energiewende, is a planned shift to a low-carbon economy that includes replacing nuclear energy with highly subsidized renewable energy .

Like Germany, some other countries, such as Belgium and Switzerland, committed to nuclear phase-outs and started the decommissioning process. In Austria, after the referendum in 1978, in which more than 50% of voters opposed future nuclear energy implementation, a law was adopted to prohibit nuclear activities. Over the years and following the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima incidents, the Austrian public’s acceptance of nuclear power decreased further and is currently very low. Similarly, Ireland has made clear its intention not to pursue a nuclear policy in the future and has started to focus on renewable energy to cover its energy demand.

Anti-nuclear movements

In Western Europe, the anti-nuclear movements – both national and transnational –  emerged during the 1970s. Anti-nuclear activists joined forces, and public protest crossed borders, creating international associations that developed societal integration among European countries. Ideas and cultural patterns were exchanged between ecological movements globally. However, personal contacts and international travel opportunities were critical, and the most successful collaborations occurred mainly among activists from neighboring countries. Although the opposition and attitudes varied in the European region, in the late 1970s, violent protests started in several countries against nuclear power plants, as in the demonstrations in Wyhl and Brokdorf in Germany.

Different countries attempted in the 1970s to develop their national nuclear technology but encountered disappointments in garnering public support; in countries such as Austria and West Germany, the pride in national technological innovation did not moderate the public skepticism toward the nuclear power plants. In contrast, in France, engineers’ successes in nuclear energy production were a source of national pride and public acceptance of nuclear power, and that happened precisely when public opinion in neighboring countries was declaring nuclear technologies as unacceptably dangerous.

It was not always the case that Germans rejected nuclear power. In the post-war era, most East and West Germans accepted atomic energy. The change came in the 1970s, when opponents of nuclear power were able to change the mainstream view, and the opponents to nuclear energy won the debate. The people’s mobilization against nuclear energy started around nuclear waste disposal. The construction of a nuclear recovery and waste disposal center in Gorleben (West Germany) in the 1970s was vehemently opposed by the local farmers and supported by anti-nuclear groups from all over the country. In those years, the mass media in West Germany gave visibility to anti-nuclear activists to present their cause to the public. For example, during the protests at Wyhl and Brokdorf, the regional television stations portrayed protesters as a group of citizens concerned about the risks of nuclear power rather than showing extremists and clashes. The media coverage during that period was highly engaged in discussing the nuclear energy risks; in the media reportage, citizens often represented the negative bias toward nuclear energy, whereas it was mainly politicians who maintained the pro-nuclear position. Since then, media attention to political protests against nuclear sites has been consistently ample, and, over time, the media coverage has become progressively negative

Moreover, during the 1970s, scientific arguments and counterarguments, principally about radiation safety and potential accidents, played a central role in the nuclear energy debate. Through the involvement of experts and public intellectuals, proponents and opponents tried to provide accurate information to the public. The debate was pervasive; it flowed and continued in the 1980s. Over this time, the citizens of West Germany became increasingly convinced that the nuclear opposition had the most solid scientific arguments; a similar process was also observed in the German Democratic Republic, where experts started to inquire about the safety of Soviet reactors. As a result of the anti-nuclear spirit that took root among the public as a result of the intense debate in the 1970s and 1980s, by 1986 when the Chernobyl accident occurred, citizens were already mobilized around the nuclear issues and risks in both West and East Germany. This reason explains the intensity of the German reaction to the Chernobyl disaster, which brought not only massive demonstrations and intense mass media coverage, but also extremist acts such as sabotage of electric infrastructure.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was considered geographically close to Europe, and the worries of radioactive fallout were at the forefront of public concern and media attention in those days. The echo of Chernobyl was long-lasting and brought Germany’s Red-Green Government to plan to phase out nuclear installations more than a decade after the accident. After that, the Fukushima accident blew up the nuclear debate again in 2011. Anti-nuclear demonstrations were held in 450 German communities, and survey results showed that 70 % of citizens wanted all nuclear power plants in the country to shut down.

One could say that it was the Fukushima accident that forced the political decision of Chancellor Merkel to mandate a phase-out of nuclear power by 2022; the public was relieved. According to some German political scientists, no other country was troubled by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe as much as Germany.

In the case of Austria,  nuclear accidents in the mass media had a crucial role in the nuclear power debate.   After major nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the Austrian mass media campaigned widely against the use and expansion of nuclear power. Even before the Fukushima disaster, the Austrian social acceptance of nuclear power was already the lowest in the EU-27 ( European Union of 27 Member States); but after 2011, the public attitude toward nuclear energy became more negative.

In France, the first anti-nuclear protest was led In 1971 by 15,000 people in opposition to the Fassenheim nuclear power plant. Although the anti-nuclear organizations gained public attention, the critics of nuclear energy could not construct a stable coalition within the French Parliament. While countries like Germany were facing solid public opposition based on the irreconcilable binomial nuclear power/safety, the pro-nuclear discourse in France retained its power by breaking down nuclear risks according to categories: the knowledge of causes, dimensions, and technical skills. Such a pro-nuclear discourse was legitimated by scientific evidence of the safety of technologies used in nuclear power plants built in France. Thus, nuclear risk became perceived as “manageable” in France, and opponents lost the basis for their claims about risk.

Moreover, the French anti-nuclear actors were divided into groups with no evident common ground: The political ecologists were pitted against the centrist environmental organizations. The claims of the former were firmly bonded to socialist ideology, and the points of conflict were often socialism against capitalism and ecology against energy. Overall, the conflict was demarcated as “ecosocialist.” It was considered a reflection of class conflict between the citizens and technocracy.

The anti-nuclear French movement became marginal once the Socialists took power in 1981. In the 1980s, the French political system, even the Green Party, considered the greenhouse effect as a reason for supporting nuclear energy. That link between nuclear energy production and climate protection represented the early stage of political and social acceptance that legitimated a national energy path focused on nuclear energy. After the Chernobyl accident, all the major French political parties remained firmly pro-nuclear power, and the French anti-nuclear movement languished. And again, after Chernobyl, the French narrative emphasized the safety of the national nuclear industry and how nuclear power was a guarantee of economic and energy independence. These claims are still the main pro-nuclear arguments in  France today.

New energy taxonomy

In its search for solutions to reach 2030 decarbonization goals, in 2020 the EU commission launched a technical assessment to evaluate a possible inclusion of nuclear power in the energy taxonomy. This assessment was justified by the fact that different international organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the UN Economic Commission for Europe, consider CO2 emissions from nuclear power plants comparable to those from renewable energy sources. As part of the EU nuclear technical appraisal, the European Joint Research Centre (JRC) released a report concerning “do no significant harm” (DNSH) aspects of nuclear energy. According to the DNSH criterion, research and innovation should not support or carry out activities that significantly harm any of the six environmental objectives: climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation, circular economy, pollution prevention and control, protection and restoration of biodiversity, and sustainable use of water resources.

The broad scope of the JRC report included scientific-based support for policymakers’ decisions on nuclear power. Different experts have reviewed the report – a Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental, and Emerging Risks on environmental impacts and a group of experts on radiation protection and waste management under Article 31 of the EURATOM Treaty. After these consultations, the EU Commission decided to include certain nuclear activities in the Taxonomy Complementary Delegated Act draft of December 31, 2021. The draft was further discussed with a group of experts on sustainable finance and by the EU Platform on sustainable Finance. The EU Commission finally adopted the draft at the beginning of February 2022. Since then, the Taxonomy Complementary Delegated Act is under scrutiny by the EU parliament. The Parliament will vote on the taxonomy proposal by July 2022.

Across the EU, policymakers, media, and public opinion are contemplating the future course of nuclear power under the new energy taxonomy. Each country is now considering the Taxonomy Act from its national perspective and attitude toward nuclear energy, and whether to proceed with a ban, phase-out, or development.

In the EU Parliament, the support for the new taxonomy is unclear, and opinion is split among the members.

The Greens and the Socialists and Democrats groups of lawmakers have already manifested their intention to reject the new rules, and Ireland’s EU representatives plan to oppose them next July. The EU representatives who reject the option of nuclear energy as “green” are those concerned about the environmental risks associated with nuclear plants, and some accuse the EU Commission of “greenwashing” nuclear power, i.e., making people believe that the nuclear energy sector is doing more to protect the environment than it is. Climate activists and environmental NGOs move the same accusation, manifesting their opposition to the plan and asking for public consultation. Financial actors negatively evaluate the inclusion of nuclear power in the taxonomy; examples are GLS Bank in Germany, Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, and Raiffeisen Bank International; according to them, the new taxonomy jeopardizes the credibility of the green investments.

On the other hand, the new taxonomy is supported by 10 EU countries, led by France and Poland, who signed a joint opinion article at the end of 2021. According to the pro-nuclear viewpoint presented in the article published in the prominent European newspapers, nuclear power is part of the solution to the climate crisis, volatility of energy prices, and energy independence. The signatory countries agreed that scientific data did not provide evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to humans or the environment than other technologies for electricity production. Countries supporting the new energy taxonomy are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Some do not have nuclear power plants in their territories, such as Poland and Croatia (See Figure 2).

Figure 3 reflects the attitude toward the new energy taxonomy of 13 EU countries that include nuclear power in their electricity generation mix.

Countries Share of electricity production from nuclear power in 2021 (%) Standpoint (anticipated) toward including nuclear in taxonomy
Belgium 50.30 opposed
Bulgaria 35.19 In favor
Czechia 36.89 In favor
Finland 32.75 In favor
France 69.11 In favor
Germany 12.00 opposed
Hungary 45.03 In favor
Romania 19.02 In favor
Slovakia 53.10 In favor
Slovenia 36.74 In favor
Spain 21.13 opposed
Sweden 31.24 In favor
The Netherlands 3.18 In favor of nuclear, opposed to natural gas

Figure 3. Share of electricity production from nuclear power in 2021 in different countries (open access data from Our World in Data, Oxford University) and positions as shown so far (June 2022) on the new EU energy taxonomy.

It is interesting to note that the expansion of the EU from 15 member states to 27 not only increased the number of Member States with nuclear energy experience in the EU but has also altered the balance between nuclear enthusiasts and adversaries within the EU Parliament.

In proposing the new taxonomy, the EU Commission addressed concerns about nuclear waste. Besides the EU nuclear regulatory framework, which determines the legal requirements for national nuclear policies for reducing radioactive waste generation to a minimum, technical screening criteria for nuclear activities will go beyond compliance with waste management legislation, and the new Taxonomy Regulation will require that long-term waste disposal does not cause significant or long-term harm.

The nuclear debate around energy taxonomy is intensified by the additional controversy surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the decision of the EU to completely cease using  Russian natural gas by 2027.

Arguments pertaining to climate change, energy security, and the independence of energy supplies might influence the nuclear debate and shape attitudes toward nuclear energy. If approved, the new energy taxonomy may change the future energy legislative regulation of the EU countries, allowing countries to pursue nuclear installations and financially support them through the Green Deal. In the eventuality that the commercial nuclear sector has a resurgence in the EU electricity generation mix in the years to come, the historically oppositional approach to nuclear power is likely to take a drastic turn.

However, as demonstrated by past experience, nuclear energy development cannot be controlled based only on technical/legal terms; nuclear energy plans must also overcome a social-acceptance hurdle if they are to succeed. In public opinion, the use and application of nuclear technology are often negatively connected with the military origins of nuclear energy and the risks posed by radiation. Moreover, skepticism about nuclear energy was dramatically replaced by public antagonism after the major nuclear accidents; even a single event may abruptly affect public acceptance. The public opinion and the mass media have shown their ability to influence the policymaking process regarding nuclear plans. According to some scholars, Chernobyl was a media event of the first order; the “Chernobyl-effect,” as it is known, was instantly evident to politicians, who as a result began advocating for nuclear phase-out in several countries. However, as revealed by the French and German dissimilarities, ultimately, it is societal characteristics that determine the pathway of the nuclear power debate within a democracy.

Further readings

Helmreich,  J.E. The United States and the Formation of EURATOM. Diplomatic History, 15 (1991),  387-410. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.1991.tb00137.x

Joyce, Nuclear Engineering: A Conceptual Introduction to Nuclear Power(Butterworth-Heinemann, 2017)Bert Useem, Mayer N. Zald, “From Pressure Group to Social Movement: Organizational Dilemmas of the Effort to Promote Nuclear Power,” Social Problems, 30, (1982), 144–156, https://doi.org/10.2307/800514

Opp, Karl-Dieter. “Grievances and Participation in Social Movements.” American Sociological Review 53:6 (1988): 853–64. https://doi.org/10.2307/2095895

Mez, L. “Nuclear Energy – Any solution for sustainability and climate protection?” Energy Policy, 48 (2012), 56–63.

Ho, SS, and Kristainsen, S. “Environmental Debates over Nuclear Energy: Media, Communication, and the Public.” Environ. Commun., 13 (2019)  431–439. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2019.1603018.


This Backgrounder is published in the framework of the European-Israeli Forum for Environment and Sustainability, a collaboration between the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv.

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