EU greenwashing nuclear power: Short sighted & counterproductive

Extravagantly expensive, long gestation to mount & ever-present aftereffects


February 21, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

EU greenwashing nuclear power: Short sighted & counterproductive

French nuclear power giant EDF will build six new nuclear power plants at a cost of over EUR 52 billion (Photo: EDF)

In its rush to meet the carbon emission targets, European Union has adopted a highly controversial approach of wholehearted backing for nuclear power and the European Commission’s move to give green tag to nuclear power sets a wrong & dangerous precedent.

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After nearly half a century of being home to the world’s most high profile anti-nuclear movement, it is fashionable to be nuclear in Europe again. From Heads of States to the bureaucrats sitting in Brussels, everyone seems to have new-found love for nuclear power.

Last week, French President announced that the French nuclear power giant EDF will build six new nuclear power plants at a cost of over EUR 52 billion, with the options for eight more. This decision marks the biggest investment plans in any European country for the nuclear power production in several decades.

The announcement came days after the European Commission announced new draft rules for certifying energy sources as per their carbon emissions in order to facilitate its transition to carbon-neutral future. Under the provisional rules, the EC has given a green label for nuclear and gas power plants. It sets out the criteria for classifying investments in nuclear or gas-fired power plants for electricity generation as ‘sustainable’, with the aim of directing ‘green finance’ with lower costs for the borrowers, towards activities that contribute to reducing greenhouse gases.

The third bit of news from the nuclear domain in the recent weeks was that Electricité de France (EDF), one of the biggest nuclear power producers in the world, was struggling to stay afloat. The firm had announced yet another delay in commissioning of its much-hyped and extremely controversial EPR, the so-called new generation of nuclear reactors that it has been trying to build at Flamanville in France, besides a couple of other sites in other countries. EDF said now the plant would be ready only in 2023 and the cost would go yet again up to EUR 12.7 billion.

Barely had the stock markets digested this bit of bad, but not entirely unexpected news, since EPR has proven to be the bete noire of EDF ever since it was conceived over a decade ago, than the French government announced that EDF ought to cut its electricity price down to the same level as rivals in the French market. This news sent EDF stock plunging by 20 pc.

This led the French government, which holds 84 pc equity in the troubled giant, to lend a big helping hand and last week, EDF unveiled a plan for injection of EUR 2.5 billion of fresh capital in order to avoid bankruptcy. The French government will provide EUR 2.1 billion for the same. In addition, to stay afloat, EDF will also sell about EUR 3 billion in various assets to raise cash for operations.

The recapitalisation is demonstration of a strong support by the French government to the nuclear powerhouse that has been struggling for survival over the past few years as it has overshot the cost and timelines of its projects.

But even with recapitalisation, 2022 will be especially difficult for EDF as it has to tackle corrosion issues in numerous reactors and with its debt already touching the skies at EUR 43 billion, EDF has to make heavy investments in new reactors as well as maintenance of its remaining ones. The problem of maintenance reflects in its forecast for power production this year as EDF has cut its estimates by nearly 15 pc.

Nuclear Power is anything but green 

The EDF saga is one of the many very good reasons why the EU erred in putting nuclear power in its green energy, even if provisionally. This has been opposed by several EU members, notably Germany and Austria, which have both forsaken nuclear power. The anti-nuclear lobby in the EU was also horrified by the manner in which the EU had handled the issue. It was on the eve of the New Year that the European Commission tried to slip in a major modification in how various power sources are labelled, by according the green investment tag to nuclear power.

If officials in Brussels had hoped that the media and others would be busy welcoming 2022 and hence its trick would get little attention, within hours they were proven wrong as the new government in Germany as well as numerous environmental groups rebuked the EC’s tag and asked for a withdrawal.

The EC’s tag had been in the offing for a while, especially as the European Union as well as rest of the world, struggles to meet the ambitious levels of cut in carbon emissions needed in order to achieve their targets under the Paris Agreement.

Not surprisingly, driving the move towards green tag for nuclear power is France, which is not only the biggest user of the power source, but also began its 6-month rotating presidency of the EU on January 1, 2022. However, French and EC officials ought to have realised that such a controversial move could not just be slipped in, especially as it came days after a new government in Germany, which for the first time has the Green Party as a major partner and which had actively campaigned for a total phase out of nuclear power in the country.

Ironically, the same day as the EC officials moved the draft to give green investment tag to nuclear power, Germany shut down three of the last six nuclear reactors operating in the country, as part of its promise to phase it out totally by end of 2022.

Little wonder then that the German government called the EC’s move greenwashing and said EC’s plans diluted the good label of sustainability. Germany was joined in by Austria which said it would sue if EC went ahead, saying neither gas nor nuclear power could be called green as they were both harmful for the environment.

Indeed, calling nuclear power green or sustainable is plain simple fraud on the world and an attempt to equate something that is as harmful as nuclear reactor with a solar power panel or a windmill.

Certainly, nuclear power does not lead to carbon emissions once the production begins, but to give it the same treatment as a really renewable source like solar or wind is not just twisting the truth but indeed a big lie.

Sustainability much more than just carbon emissions

Sustainability cannot be simply measured by the carbon emissions, but it must also be by the overall impact on environment and the possibility of accidents and potential damage. Indeed, from Chernobyl to Fukushima and many more incidents that pass unreported or don’t make global headlines, the world has seen the dangers of nuclear power.

And this is the scenario currently where nuclear power accounts for less than 10 pc of the total power production around the world. The share of nuclear power is so low for two reasons. One is that these projects are extremely capital intensive, with construction cost of each MW of nuclear power exceeding 7.7 million euros, in case of Flamanville in France. Not just that, the nuclear power projects have a long history of huge delays and cost over runs. The Flamanville’s initial budget was EUR 3.3 billion and the plant was to be operational in 2013. Now it is over a decade late and cost has grown over 400 pc, with no certainty that it would not have any more cost or time over runs. In sharp contrast, solar power in many parts of the world has become even cheaper than coal, the cheapest source so far.

The nuclear industry lobby says that the cost of running a nuclear power plant is minimal and that over a life-cycle nuclear power is competitive. However, this is false again as decommissioning of a nuclear power plant can be more expensive than building one and that too, leaving a great deal of doubt over how safely the nuclear waste has been stored and whether it would not leak into the ground water or contaminate the soil over the course of tens of thousands of years that the nuclear waste will be radioactive.

This is the current scenario. If a green investment tag is indeed given to nuclear energy and if it drives hundreds of billions of dollars of fresh capital into launching hundreds of new nuclear power projects, then the world leaders must pause and think if they are not laying out landmines or putting ticking timebombs under all of us as there would be a much higher risk of accidents or spillage of radiation while the plants are being constructed or operated and of course when they are decommissioned after barely 50 years of use.

The world must ponder whether it is worth tackling the poison in the air that is carbon by spreading poison all around us, in air, in soil and in waters, because that is what will happen should we go whole hog for nuclear energy.




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