Grim(m) news

Europe writes its own fairly tale on nuclear power and fossil gas

By Linda Pentz Gunter

The brothers Grimm are alive and well and they just wrote a new fairy tale. It doesn’t have a very alluring title — The Taxonomy Complementary Climate Delegated Act (Act)— but it is packed full of fantasy.

The February 2nd European Commission (EC) document of that name is the culmination of a whole masterwork of myths that preceded it to establish what is known as the EU Taxonomy. It lays out the Commission opinion “that there is a role for private investment in gas and nuclear activities in the transition” to European climate neutrality.

The EU Taxonomy “is a classification system, establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities” and “would provide companies, investors and policymakers with appropriate definitions for which economic activities can be considered environmentally sustainable.”

This kiss to turn nuclear “green” was not unexpected. France, famous for its fairy tales and who we’ll try not to refer to as the Frog Prince, had been lobbying hard for the inclusion of nuclear power for months. To mix magic metaphors, the EC happily ate the poisoned apple.

If you feel like you are disappearing down a labyrinth as we begin to untangle this here, you are not alone.

The February 2 announcement amended the earlier Taxonomy Climate Delegated Act. Feeding into all this was the Joint Research Center’s report — Technical assessment of nuclear energy with respect to the ‘do no significant harm’ criteria of Regulation (EU) 2020/852 (‘Taxonomy Regulation’) (also thankfully known as ‘The JRC Report’). 

The JRC Report was reviewed in an “Opinion” by the Group of Experts referred to in Article 31 of the Euratom Treaty (yes, that’s the group’s actual name). 

It was also assessed by “experts” from the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks, known as the “SCHEER” group. (I am sure the late great Hermann Scheer, who founded the International Renewable Energy Agency and wrote that “Nuclear energy belongs in a museum” must be rolling in his grave.)

There was also a more critical view published on January 21, 2022, by the EU’s Technical Expert Group (TEG) from the Platform on Sustainable Finance, which called out the Act’s acceptance of nuclear power and fossil gas in the Taxonomy as “greenwashing.”

The European Commission is packed full of experts, but their decision to classify nuclear power and fossil gas as green and sustainable is pure fiction. (Image: European Commission)

Who are all these “experts”? Good luck sorting that out. Christiana Maria Mauro, a legal advocate who also works with Nuclear Transparency Watch, had a go at getting the names — and declarations of interest — of the Euratom 31 group under freedom of information laws and got stonewalled for months until the Euratom Supply Agency finally coughed up the list.

All of these reports and endless piles of paper pointed inexorably to the EC coming to the conclusion it did on February 2 (the decision still has to go to a vote in the European Parliament.) Given its lobbying power, financial desperation and ties to nuclear weapons, we knew that somehow the nuclear power industry would argue its way into the Taxonomy despite being far from sustainable. 

The Act document tries to suggest that there are certain conditions that nuclear power must meet in order to gain its place at the financing trough, but these are reliant on a whole lot of “ifs” and “shoulds”, mainly on the safety front, that have been disproven by reality. Accepting these allows the EC to brush over the obvious, which is that nuclear power cannot in any way meet the standard to “do no significant harm”.

The JRC Report contains some of the most outrageous of the claims in favor of nuclear power’s inclusion as “green”. 

Examples include: 

  • that deep geologic repositories have already solved the waste problem because they are an “appropriate and safe means of isolating spent fuel”; 
  • that nuclear energy “does not do significant harm to the other four environmental objectives of the Taxonomy Regulation provided that it meets the proposed technical screening criteria” (which it never would, but which no agency bothers to enforce anyway); 
  • that “where and when the environmental impacts are potentially harmful, appropriate measures to prevent the impacts or to mitigate their consequences can be implemented using existing technology; and 
  • that “the impact of the nuclear energy full lifecycle, including the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, on humans and the environment remains below harmful levels”. [all emphases added]

The Commission, in rendering its verdict, contradicts a body of evidence showing how nuclear power cancels out renewables by declaring that in “providing a stable baseload energy supply, nuclear energy facilitates the deployment of intermittent renewable sources and does not hamper their development”.

But the EC document contains something even more ominous and unexpected. It offers a wholehearted endorsement and eager promotion of ‘Generation IV’ closed fuel cycle or breeder reactors, and says these “minimise the production of high-level radioactive waste.”  It goes on to say, and this is worth quoting in full:

“In the light of the expected technological and scientific developments, investments in the construction and safe operation of new nuclear installations using best available technologies and approved by an appropriate date by Member States’ competent authorities in accordance with applicable national law should be subject to technical screening criteria and to time-limits that will encourage the development and future use of Generation IV reactors with closed fuel cycle or fuel self-breeding once they become commercially available.” [emphasis added].

There is absolutely no mention of the serious proliferation risks Generation IV reactors entail, nor of the necessity for reprocessing, an expensive, messy and dangerous failure with a massive radioactive waste stream that has landed France and England with more than 61 tonnes and 140 tonnes respectively of surplus plutonium. Instead, it brags about “their potential contribution to the objective of decarbonisation and minimisation of radioactive waste”.

The report further advocates for the license extension of old, still operating reactors, given “the long lead times for investments in new nuclear generation capacity.” Yet, despite recognizing the unrealistically far-off realization of new reactors in the context of mitigating climate change, it goes on to support Generation III+ reactors. 

Neither new nor existing reactors can possibly meet “the highest standards of nuclear safety, radiation protection and radioactive waste management”. Besides, safety requirements and objectives have a nasty habit of being overlooked or worked around by the nuclear industry and its largely lapdog regulator.

But no worries, because we learn in this document that “accident tolerant” fuel for nuclear power plants “has become available on the market.” What does “accident-tolerant” even mean? 

“It’s a fraud” says physicist Ed Lyman, with the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

“After Fukushima, Congress funded a DOE program to develop ‘accident-tolerant’ fuels that might take longer to melt down in an accident or use cladding materials that wouldn’t generate hydrogen when they react with water,” Lyman wrote in an email. “But it pretty quickly became clear such fuels wouldn’t work. Then the industry, in a bait-and-switch move, pivoted the program to high-burnup fuels that might save them some money but would be LESS accident-tolerant than current fuels.”

The European Commission seems to think that it is perfectly “realistic” for any country to build its own deep geologic radioactive waste repository even though only one in the world, Onkalo in Finland (pictured) is underway. (Photo of Onkalo by kallerna/Wikimedia Commons)

As for the radioactive waste problem, the EC claims that this is effectively solved since “realistic solutions are becoming available” for EU countries to develop and operate deep geologic repositories for high-level radioactive waste “by 2050.” This ignores the fact that only one— in Finland — is actually underway today, and finding a geologically sound, politically stable, volunteer host site, has proven monumentally hard if not impossible.

In reviewing the JRC report on the subject of deep geologic repositories, the Euratom 31 group said they had confidence “that the potential environmental consequences and inherent risks of long-term nuclear waste management, in particular the potent impact of long-term disposal of nuclear waste on the environment, remain acceptable”. [emphasis added]

This is the same thinking that led us to pump our atmosphere full of greenhouse gases and dump plastics and other pollutants into the oceans. It all remained perfectly “acceptable” for far too long. Until it wasn’t. And by then, it was almost, if not actually, too late.

All of these documents are chock full of aspirational nonsense. There are no boots on the ground here. The EC conclusions rely on technological advances that haven’t happened, fantasies about fast reactors and repositories, magic money, and a head-in-the-sand approach to regulatory adherence and safety enforcement. The track record of the nuclear industry to date is evidence enough that none of these things will come to pass.

This is most evident in the statement that “significant investments in nuclear energy will be needed throughout the period until 2050 and beyond. It is necessary to ensure that new nuclear power plants use the most advanced solutions resulting from technological progress.”

The trouble is, those investments will be coming out of our pockets. And note the qualification of “and beyond”. We will be pouring our money down a virtually bottomless money pit of wasted dollars (or Euros) indefinitely.

Even billionaire Bill Gates is not willing to risk all of his own money on his proliferation-friendly Natrium fast reactor and has asked the U.S. Department of Energy (i.e. American tax payers) to contribute $2 billion to the project.

As for “technological progress”, what we’ve seen so far, as evidenced by the new EPR and AP1000 reactors currently under construction, has been a debacle, with disastrous and expensive safety failures in China, France, Finland and the U.S. (never mind the colossal cost and construction time over-runs).

Nuclear-free Austria will sue the European Commission at the European Court of Justice if the current Taxonomy proposal actually comes into force. Petitions are already circulating decrying this disgraceful greenwashing. 

Meanwhile, the time we have left to address our climate emergency ebbs fast. We need to put a quick end to this looming nuclear nightmare or none of us will be living happily ever after.

Headline photo by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis/Wikimedia Commons

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