Greenpeace warns European Commission on nuclear energy classification

Move follows scientific expert group’s conclusion that ‘the fuel qualifies as sustainable’ under green investments

Greenpeace Europe has warned the European Commission against reinstating nuclear power on the list of activities deemed sustainable by the European Union.

The call was made after the commission’s scientific expert group, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), concluded the fuel can be regarded as sustainable under green investments – notably in the context of making Europe net-zero in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Greenpeace EU policy adviser Silvia Pastorelli said: "It's become more and more clear that the nuclear industry cannot stand on its feet without massive funding and that is why they're desperate for EU support, as nuclear power is too expensive and new projects are evaporating."

In its report, the JRC “is dangerously optimistic about the renovation of operating nuclear power plants. Independent scientists have already told the EU that the unsustainable environmental hazard of nuclear waste is enough reason to drop the technology”, she said.


“Rather than let a dying industry swallow up vital funding, the European Commission should back real climate action, excluding all fake green ‘solutions’ like nuclear, gas and biomass,” Ms Pastorelli suggested.

In March 2020, the Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance established by the commission recommended excluding nuclear power from "the green taxonomy"; a European classification of low-carbon and transitional economic activities designed to guide investment.

Greenpeace noted, however, that after intense lobbying by pro-nuclear stakeholders, the commission asked the JRC to assess “the absence of significant environmental harm of nuclear power”, which it claimed is paving the way to the sector’s reinstatement on the list of activities deemed sustainable by the EU.

According to the environmental NGO, however, the JRC’s structural links with the Euratom treaty, its relations with the nuclear industry and the views expressed publicly by its members on nuclear energy “call into question the JRC’s ability to conduct an objective assessment of the sustainability of nuclear energy”.

The commission should have entrusted this study to an impartial structure and included civil society, it insisted. Two expert committees will scrutinise the JRC’s findings – which were leaked to Reuters – for three months before the commission takes a final decision.

Harm assessment

Achieving climate-neutrality requires compensating by 2050 not only any remaining CO2 but also any other GHG emissions, as set out in its “A Clean Planet for All” strategy, and confirmed by the European green deal.

To facilitate this, establishment of a framework to facilitate sustainable investment that provides appropriate definitions to companies and investors on which economic activities can be considered environmentally sustainable is required.

Given its extensive technical expertise on nuclear energy and technology, the JRC was asked to conduct this analysis and to draft a technical assessment report on the “do no significant harm” aspects of nuclear energy including long-term management of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

Dr Sama Bilbao y Leon, director general of World Nuclear Association which represents the global nuclear industry said: "The JRC report is clear in its conclusions. There are no scientific arguments supporting an exclusion of nuclear energy from the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy."

“The JRC report should be reviewed with due urgency by the two remaining expert groups. In the meanwhile, we call on the commission not to delay in setting out the process and the timeline for the inclusion of nuclear energy within the taxonomy, to safeguard the transparency of the process,” she added.

“We are facing the dual challenge of economic recovery following the pandemic, and climate change. Enough time has been spent procrastinating. Nuclear energy, the single-largest low-carbon electricity source in the EU, has already played a major role in terms providing reliable cost-effective 24/7 sustainable electricity for the last 40+ years, and it will be crucial in building a sustainable tomorrow,” Dr Bilbao y Leon said.

Radioactive waste disposal

In its 2018 landmark report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change model pathways indicated nuclear power will need to make a major contribution to keeping the average global temperature increase (relative to pre-industrial times) under the key threshold of 1.5 degrees. In 2019, an International Energy Agency report outlined how the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 will be more difficult and expensive without nuclear energy.

Brussels’ expert advisers last year were split over whether nuclear power deserved a green label, recognising that while it produces very low planet-warming emissions, more analysis was needed on the environmental impact of radioactive waste disposal.

The JRC experts have concluded, however, nuclear deserves a green label. “The analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies,” their report added.

Storage of nuclear waste in deep geologic formations is deemed "appropriate and safe", it found, citing countries including France and Finland in advanced stages of developing such sites.

EU countries are split over nuclear. France, Hungary and five other countries last month urged the commission to support nuclear in policies including the taxonomy. Other states including Austria, and some environmental groups, oppose the fuel, pointing to its hazardous waste and the delays and spiralling costs of recent projects.

“The nuclear industry is desperate for funds as nuclear power is too expensive and new projects are evaporating,” the Greenpeace adviser Silvia Pastorelli underlined.

EU countries are also split over how the taxonomy should treat investments in natural gas. After a plan to exclude gas faced pushback from pro-gas countries, the commission last month drafted plans to label some gas as sustainable – splintering countries between those who support the fuel as an alternative to more polluting coal, and those who say new gas plants risk locking in emissions for decades, thwarting climate goals.

– Additional reporting: Reuters

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times