For this second edition of the YES-Europe Energy Apero Debates, two passionate young debaters bring their views on the role of nuclear energy in the EU energy transition. The event took place online, in the usual debate format, with a discussion guided by Gianluca Neridetti, Project Manager from the YES-Europe Policy team. The debaters had three minutes to answer each of the 5 pre-selected questions, which touched upon different aspects of Nuclear energy, including public perception, waste and safety. Click here to access the debate recording, and feel free to reach out to email@example.com to get more information on this event.
Event report and follow-up considerations:
In February of 2022, The European Commission presented a Taxonomy Complementary Climate Delegated Act where certain nuclear activities were included in the so-called ‘transitional’ category of activities (the other categories are ‘low-carbon’ and ‘enabling’). According to the Commission’s official communications, “these are activities that cannot yet be replaced by technologically and economically feasible low-carbon alternatives but do contribute to climate change mitigation and with the potential to play a major role in the transition to a climate-neutral economy, in line with EU climate goals and commitments, and subject to strict conditions, without crowding out investment in renewables”.
Amid the heated dialogues in the Brussels policy bubble, one can easily lose sight on what Taxonomy actually aims to achieve: the Taxonomy is not an instrument of EU energy policy, but rather a tool to increase transparency in financial markets for private sector sustainable investments (learn more about the EU Taxonomy here). It is meant to serve as a “common language” for investors to help assess the activities of companies. In other words, it neither dictates the flow of future investments nor does it prevent any economic sector from receiving investments. It remains up to each Member State to decide their own energy mix. So what kind of impact should we expect to see, as a direct or indirect consequence of nuclear getting transitional status in the taxonomy, in terms of investments in this technology in Europe?
Benedetta stated that regardless of nuclear being included in the taxonomy, it does not change the fact that nuclear is a risky investment. She reminded that it takes 7-15 years to build a nuclear power plant, leading to a long-term wait until the return on investment and uncertainty, due to potential changes in political environment affecting nuclear generation.
Johan pointed out that, more importantly than the impact on investments in this technology, the inclusion of nuclear in the sustainable taxonomy provides recognition to nuclear as a clean technology, and hopefully will also help with the social perspective on it.
Benedetta counter-argued that nuclear only got a transition fuel status, which may actually hurt the credibility of this technology as a clean one.
And in reality, recent news have supported this argument: for example, the European Investment Bank might decide to avoid nuclear and gas projects, out of fear of losing trust of the investors “by selling something as a green project, which turns out to be the opposite, then we cut the feet on which we are standing when it comes to financing the activities of the bank.”
However, other sources point out that public funds will probably flow according to taxonomy criteria, in particular, because municipal utilities, which are owned by local authorities, are often responsible for investing in power plants. And the same applies to nuclear energy, as nuclear plants have historically been financed by the national governments to overcome the high capex costs. Can we conclude something about this technology’s competitiveness in the energy market based on this?
Johan highlighted that we should not ‘compare applies and pears’ when talking about energy prices, and that metrics such as the LCOE don’t necessarily reflect the actual cost of each technology. In the case of nuclear, it’s important to remember that it is a standalone energy source that does not rely on backup fossil fuel, in contrary of others such as solar or wind energy. System costs should be taken into consideration when calculating the true cost of energy from different sources, including integration costs, like the cost of back-up sources.
Benedetta pointed out that energy storage technology as the potential to reduce or cut the need for baseload in the future. She reminded actual cases where the costs of construction of nuclear raised up, which translates into a considerable additional burden on taxpayers’ money. She added that beyond integration costs, issues of permitting, construction, and all those aspects need to be considered.
Johan replied that storage technologies like batteries and power-to-X have not been proven to work on large-scale energy systems anywhere. “It’s a gamble”, and he would rather see investments go into proven technologies such as nuclear.
And indeed, nuclear has been proven by different scientific bodies to be taxonomy aligned, including in the context of the Taxonomy, through an assessment carried by the EU Joint Research Centre and reviewed by two further expert bodies, concluding that the technology is sustainable. This, however, does not seem to put an end to the public debate on this technology, in a conversation that is highly political and dependent on national perspectives. Countries like France and Finland have for long relied on nuclear energy as a stable source of energy with near to zero greenhouse gas emissions. However, the conversation is different in countries with nonexistent or few open nuclear power plants. For such cases, investing in nuclear does not equal any short-term contribution to the electricity mix nor to climate change mitigation, due to the fact that new plants take years to be built. This and other trade-offs of this technology continue to polarize the public debate. But how much does public opinion actually influence the decision-making process at the political level?
Benedetta is of the opinion that national governments and the European and national parliaments are the institutions normally more cautious about public opinion, and nuclear is a particularly sensitive topic, as public opinion has always been very strong regarding this technology. She referred to the case of Italy, when following the Chornobyl accident there was a referendum showing that the Italian population was against nuclear. The same happened after the Fukushima accident.
Johan counter-argued that achieving the European decarbonisation targets should not be limited by public opinion, but rather to science. He believes there is a “Nuclear Renaissance” on the way, as we see countries like Finland, Sweden, UK and France implement nuclear-friendly policies.
Benedetta reminded that the “risk and damages associated with nuclear power are also science proved”. Nuclear accidents are a reality, so local communities which would have to deal with a nuclear power plant in their proximity should have a say in that decision.
Question remains if the policy debate is unbiased enough to handle efficiently this complex topic. Following February’s delegated act, there was considerable backlash over the decision to include nuclear in the taxonomy, and over key aspects of this energy source that were possibly overlooked. An example of this is the misalignment of nuclear with some of the taxonomy’s basic premises for sustainable investments, namely the “Do No Significant Harm” principle and the contribution to circular economy and reduced environmental pollution. Some argued that the EU Taxonomy delegated act failed to consider the issue of over-reliance on nuclear material imports and associated energy security and investment risks. An environmental NGO went as far as to say that the “use of fuel in nuclear energy generation is wasteful and against the circular economy”, referring to the fact only about 4-10% of the energy contained in Uranium fuel is used before it is considered waste. Further on, there is the inevitable issue of nuclear waste.
Johan highlighted that nuclear waste from electricity-producing power plants does not and has never posed a lethal risk for society. As regards to the environmental impact, he stated that the JRC’s technical assessment concluded that nuclear waste does not have any long-term impact in the environment. Referring to waste management practices, he reinforced that the nuclear industry is the only one in the energy transition that takes full responsibility for its waste. This is not the case for the wind or solar energy industries, proving in his opinion that the waste issue “is a political problem, not a scientific one”.
Benedetta agreed that repositories built to the best quality criteria are indeed safe, and further acknowledged the great improvement done on waste management by the nuclear industry, namely the reduction of the amount of radiative waste of the amount of highly radiative waste, which is about 1%. However, she prompted that “that 1% of highly radioactive waste is not going anywhere” and there are no proven technologies to deal with it. “That is a burden we would be leaving to the future generations”.
Johan counter-argued that there is scientific proof that even if the nuclear waste repositories kept under water were compromised, the people living in the proximity of that waste would still not be significantly impacted. He further incited that such argumentation over the risks of nuclear waste is fearmongering, and are only serving to block the decarbonisation process.
Following the taxonomy delegated act, another European event brought nuclear to the centre of discussions once again – the Russian invasion onf Ukraine. The invasion has underscored the risk of supply chain disruption for nuclear fuels and for other steps of the nuclear fuel chain, such as radioactive waste storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. In fact, recent data shows that in consequence of Russia banning enriched uranium exports, global markets are disrupted with soaring prices. Another inevitable discussion that arose from the Russian conflict in Ukraine is the topic of safety.
Benedetta defended that though she does not see a correlation between nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, there is one between nuclear energy and safety on war times: “a nuclear power plant can be used as a threat, e.g. as power goes off in a region where a power plant is working, that power plant won’t have the power to be refrigerated”.
Following questions from the audience, Benedetta pointed out that with nuclear we would be keeping the centralized energy model of nowadays, while there is a clear motivation and arguments in favour of the decentralization of the energy system through the use of solar and wind energy. Building on the topic of decentralization, it was pointed out by Johan that materials and land used for the generation of energy from different technologies is an aspect that should also be considered in the choices we make for the future energy mix.
All in all, nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source and for that it must rightfully be considered in the public debate together with other clean energy solutions. However, its future weight in the European energy mix will be up to investors and other national stakeholders to decide. YES-Europe (Young leaders in Energy and Sustainability) is supportive of science-based arguments and data, but we also call on national government to hear the voice of young people in their countries as part of the decision-making process.