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As EU delays taxonomy ruling, experts split on value of green label for nuclear

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Finland's new Olkiluoto nuclear power plant was completed after delays and cost overruns. Supported by many Finns, nuclear technology brings baseload power to the energy-intensive economy.
Teollisuuden Voima Oy

As the European Commission hammers out new rules for climate-friendly investments, the fate of nuclear power remains uncertain and hotly contested. But not every expert sees the potential exclusion of the technology from the EU's new rulebook as a fatal blow for new-build plants.

The commission published the first set of criteria under its sustainable finance taxonomy regulation on April 21. The document will serve as a checklist for green finance, helping prevent greenwashing, or mislabeling unsustainable activities as green, and ultimately supporting the European Green Deal strategy.

It will come into effect in early 2022, but the debate over the inclusion of nuclear has been kicked into the long grass, with a final verdict promised in the summer following further scientific appraisals.

"It's a major deal. The taxonomy will either ease or make difficult the way you get money," said Alain Vallée, president at French consultancy NucAdvisor, who spent three decades at French nuclear giant Framatome and now advises on large nuclear projects across the world.

New nuclear plants are capital intensive, especially in the construction phase, with new reactors such as France's 1.65-GW Flamanville Nuclear Plant now costing over €10 billion. Vallée expects banks will follow the taxonomy's guidelines for fear of disgruntling customers and other stakeholders, and funding for technologies excluded from the taxonomy could dry up. "It's quite essential for nuclear to survive to be on the list of sustainable energy sources," he said.

READ: Stick or twist? Europe divided on nuclear future

There is scientific ground for the inclusion of nuclear. The EU's Joint Research Centre, which sets out to inform policymaking, said in a March 29 report that it could not find any science-based evidence that nuclear power does more harm to human health or the environment than other electricity sources already deemed by the taxonomy as climate-friendly. It also found that the regulatory safety mechanisms and standards needed for safe nuclear power operations are being adhered to the EU.

The main environmental impacts of nuclear power plants are their high water consumption and potential to heat up bodies of freshwater when discharging water used for cooling, the Joint Research Centre said.

The commission said April 21 that two sets of expert panels are reviewing the Join Research Centre's report and have three months to come to a conclusion.

Environmental groups remains unconvinced. In a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, the likes of WWF, Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace said waste storage in the environment, radioactive pollution after accidents, and water heating are all reasons why nuclear does not meet the "do no significant harm" criteria set out in the taxonomy.

Countries like Germany, which is closing its nuclear chapter, as well as Austria and Luxembourg are also pushing for the exclusion of nuclear from the taxonomy, citing in part the creation of radioactive waste. Others like Poland and France, which have nuclear ambitions or large existing fleets, are supportive of its inclusion.

"Clearly there is no agreement on the use of nuclear energy," said Vallée, pointing to the example of Austria suing the EU over support for the U.K.'s new Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Plant in 2015, when the U.K. was still an EU member. Opposition can be "religious, dogmatic," he said. Radioactive waste from nuclear plants makes up only a fraction of the dangerous industrial waste produced in Europe, Vallée added.

Taxonomy 'doesn't change the picture'

British nuclear lobbyist Tom Greatrex, CEO of the U.K. Nuclear Industry Association, puts less weight on the presence of nuclear in the new rulebook. "The impact of the taxonomy is less significant than people think," he said.

Capital costs for technologies that are included in the taxonomy will likely be lower compared to excluded technologies, said Murielle Gagnebin, a project manager at German think tank Agora Energiewende. "However, this does not mean that investments in other technologies will be restricted or prohibited in the future. We need a variety of technologies in order to achieve our goals, and it is a matter of identifying the 'best-in-class' solutions," Gagnebin said in an email. "Whether or not nuclear power is on the list doesn't change the picture of investment opportunities much."

The role of nuclear as a low-carbon technology varies across the EU. In Eastern European nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic, where a significant shift away from coal will take place over the coming decades, there will be increased need for baseload power to fill the gap.

Nuclear as well as gas, which is also being scrutinized over its place in the taxonomy, are the main alternatives to coal, and some governments are keen to build nuclear power. Blocking that move would require some form of compensation for these countries to avoid short-changing them, according to Angela Wilkinson, secretary general of the World Energy Council.

In the Nordic region, decarbonization efforts rely more heavily on nuclear and hydropower, according to Anne Malorie Géron, vice-president for EU affairs at Finnish utility Fortum Oyj. Should both technologies be excluded, the climate push "would be certain to face difficulties" and create wider market uncertainties, Géron said in an April 20 statement.

"The nuclear industry has to get its act together" and argue more strongly for labeling that declares it low carbon, Wilkinson said. Additionally, the sector should point to the co-benefits of advancing nuclear technology, including enhanced medical capabilities such as diagnostics. And if Europe were to close its nuclear chapter, it would also lose the authority to inspect nuclear projects around the world for safety.

Ultimately, there needs to be a more nuanced conversation around the technologies tasked with delivering Europe's ambitious decarbonization goals, Wilkinson said. "If you want to talk anything other than renewables you are the devil," she said. "There are different pathways toward transition. The reality is it's a much more mixed picture in the future."