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Dynamics shifting on Europe's nuclear battleground amid Brexit, German phaseout

SNL Image

A nuclear power plant in Germany. The country plans to shut down its last reactor in 2022.
Source: AP Photo

With the U.K. set to exit the EU at the end of the month, advocates of nuclear power in Europe are losing another prominent supporter at a crucial time for the industry, less than a decade after one-time nuclear powerhouse Germany turned its back on the technology.

Fights about the suitability of nuclear as a fuel for the future have broken out repeatedly in recent months, looming large in discussions around the EU's new sustainable financing guidelines as well as the future lending policy of the European Investment Bank, or EIB, a key source of energy financing across the bloc.

The EU depends on nuclear power for around a quarter of its electricity, but only half of the bloc's 28 members have operating nuclear power stations.

Now, the imminent exit of the U.K. — which is staunchly committed to building new nuclear plants, despite ballooning costs and an exodus of developers — will snuff out a loud voice in Europe's pro-nuclear camp, according to Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow specializing in European energy policy at the think tank Chatham House.

"Its departure will change the balance [of power] quite significantly," he said.

READ: Nuclear exit haunts Germany as country enters crucial period for climate action

This comes on the heels of a significant nuclear U-turn from Germany, which is on schedule to shut down its last reactors in 2022, in line with a phaseout agreed almost a decade ago. The plan has inspired few — if any — imitators, despite broad support at home, and neighbors like France are still betting on the fuel to shoulder their energy needs far into the future.

But analysts say Germany's move into the anti-nuclear camp has had a big impact nonetheless.

"It's not that a lot of countries are following the German nuclear phaseout," said Alexander Reitzenstein, a policy adviser at E3G, another think tank. "[But] Germany's voting power through its share in the EIB, its voting power in the EU ... on the finance and investment side, that is the interesting issue."

"Germany is a significant player in Europe in all areas. From a policy perspective, it makes a material difference," said Chatham House's Froggatt.

Power struggle

In the longer term, Belgium and Spain are planning to get out of nuclear by 2025 and 2035, respectively. Switzerland has also decided to quit the fuel, but does not yet have a firm timeline for closing its remaining power plants.

That means countries like Poland, which wants to build up its own nuclear power sector, in part to wean itself off coal, are struggling against a field increasingly stacked against them.

SNL Image

Late last year, talks over the EU's common classification system for sustainable finance got hung up on the question of whether nuclear power, a fuel that produces no emissions, should be considered "green." Eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as France, by far the largest user of nuclear power in Europe, led the push for its inclusion.

Aligned against them, according to multiple press reports, were countries including Austria, Luxembourg and Germany.

The compromise they reached in the end left open the possibility that low-carbon technologies like nuclear and gas could be classified as helping the transition towards a carbon-neutral world, but didn't rank them on par with renewable energy, as supporters had hoped.

The framework, dubbed the green taxonomy, is designed to give investors a common definition of environmentally friendly investments in order to channel more capital into sustainable businesses and prevent so-called greenwashing from companies disguising their activities as sustainable.

'Ripple effect'

At the same time, during negotiations over the EU's Green Deal, a nod to nuclear energy as part of the toolbox for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 was necessary to get both Hungary and the Czech Republic on board. Poland was the only country not to sign up to the target, due to worries over the cost of the transition.

And a month earlier, the nuclear sticking point had infiltrated a vote on a new energy lending policy at the EIB, which Austria and Luxembourg decided to sit out because of the policy's weak support for the technology, according to news website Euractiv. EU members hold shares in the bank according to their size, meaning Germany and the U.K., along with Italy and France, have held large sway over its business.

The policy's language on nuclear may turn out to be largely symbolic, since experts say the EIB is unlikely to finance new-build nuclear plants anyway, although it has lent money for upgrades and modernizations in the past.

But the fact that nuclear advocates are increasingly having to fight for even that shows how the departure of strong pro-nuclear voices is shifting the balance of power. "It has a ripple effect across Europe," Froggatt said.