Committee on Industry, Research and Technology (ITRE)

Atomic future? “Accounting for over half of the EU’s carbon-free electricity, nuclear power is regarded by some as a key component of a sustainable energy production model. With divergent energy policies among Member States and an increasingly negative public opinion towards nuclear power, what stance should the EU adopt on the usage of nuclear power?” 

By Thomas Celie (NL) and Pien Pelt (NL)

1. The topic at a glance 

A European Green Deal is high on the priority list of the European Commission of 2019-2024, yet nuclear energy, the power source that currently supplies 50% of Europe’s low-carbon electricity, will not receive any investments from the European Green Deal Investment Plan (EGDIP). On one hand, nuclear energy is deemed dangerous due to three main reasons: the possibility of weaponization, the non-disposable waste that has to be managed, and the accidents that have happened in the past. On the other hand, the main benefit of nuclear power is its ability to create high amounts of low carbon energy, which in turn reduces carbon emission. The less fossil fuel we burn each year, the more time we make for innovation of renewables to catch up.

2. Key Actors and Stakeholders 

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. They provide information to policymakers around the world with regards to its natural, political and economic impacts and risks. They also provide some possible responses to these issues.

European Commission, specifically the Directorate-General for Energy (DG ENER), is in charge of developing EU energy-related policies. They have the goals of  achieving secure, sustainable, and competitively priced energy for Europe.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): is an intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical co-operation in the nuclear field. They work towards spreading safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.

European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom): The EU established Euratom as a separate entity with the goal of developing nuclear energy and distributing it among Member States. Besides developing nuclear energy, Euratom is also interested in nuclear power, safeguarding nuclear materials and the construction of the International Fusion Reactor ITER.

Countries within Europe and the EU specifically that have operating or under construction nuclear power plants

Western European Nuclear Regulators Association( WENRA) was developed to take a critical look at the nuclear safety measures of Nations that applied for Membership of the EU.

European Nuclear Safety Regulatory Group (ENSREG) is an independent, expert advisory group created by the European Commission. ENSREG is committed to the constant improvement in nuclear safety and radioactive waste management and in increasing the understanding among policymakers.

TerraPower: Bill Gates supports this company in nuclear energy that is a leading actor in commercial nuclear research because they are trying to find a way for nuclear waste to be turned into fuel again. 

3. Key Conflicts 

Stances on nuclear energy differ greatly among the Member States. France and Sweden have been investing in nuclear energy for the last few years, while countries like Germany, Spain and Belgium are in a so-called nuclear power phase-out. This means the countries are slowly stepping away from nuclear energy, often replacing it with fossil fuels. The main clash point between their views is the different ways in which different energy sources pollute. The use of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, this causes the warming of the global temperature, which leads to enormous catastrophes, such as immense wildfires, floods and hurricanes. Climate change also directly relates to the loss of the natural environment. The EU has set goals to minimize these impacts as stated in the European Green Deal. While radioactive waste from nuclear power plants stays dangerous for 100,000s of years by emitting radioactive radiation. When waste gets leaked into the environment, drinking water could get contaminated. Radiation in larger quantities causes organ damage, radiation sickness and, in the long term, cancer. 

Another limitation of nuclear power seems to be the negative public opinion caused by famous disasters and accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. This means construction and maintenance costs for nuclear power plants are high, and that such projects often face huge opposition from both locals and action groups. Another result of this is that businesses find it too high of a risk to invest in nuclear projects, thus leaving governments alone in providing the required resources. New nuclear power plants may offer solutions to these problems, however, it would take many investments to see these technologies becoming reality. If the Member States want to achieve the carbon output goals set by the  European Green Deal, they will need to alter their strategy.

4. What has been done so far?

European amending Nuclear Safety Directive 2014 The directive was mainly focused on applying the lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdown and the safety requirements made by the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association( WENRA) and the IAEA, making sure safety regulations are in place for construction, maintenance and shut down of the power plants.

– Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) 1970 This treaty was mainly made to prevent countries from developing nuclear warheads. 191 countries have joined the treaty since. The treaty also gave life to the IAEA.   

The EU’s Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management Directive 2011 Euratom requires Member States to have a national plan for storing nuclear waste on their territory and limits the export of nuclear waste. 

European regulation against misuse In 2005 and 2009 the EU made regulations that required Member States to provide data about their nuclear facilities and supplies to the European Commission.

EU green deal The European Green Deal consists of many regulations and directives but the main goal was to have reduced emissions by 100% by 2050 compared to 1990. A new long term strategy to reduce emissions was developed in early 2020. Among other things, it stated that the Member States could decide for themselves what kind of new energy source they would use. Nuclear energy was stated as an example. However, EDGIP does not fund nuclear energy.

5. Further links 

A research and policy organization that is pro-nuclear

A brief video that explains the basics of nuclear energy (We also recommend to look at the other two videos in this series.)

A short article about how current reactors produce energy