Brussels won’t block new nuclear plants, says EU climate chief

The EU Commission will “certainly not stand in [the] way” of governments which plan to decarbonise by building new nuclear power stations, said Frans Timmermans, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action.

 Nuclear power accounts for 27 per cent of electricity generated across the EU and approximately half of low-carbon electricity. Member states have varying attitudes towards nuclear power, which is expected to play a significant role in the bloc-wide effort to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in line with the ‘European Green Deal’.

Timmermans spoke about the future of energy in the EU during a livestreamed conversation with Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, as part of its Big Ideas series.

Timmermans – considered an architect of the European Green Deal – explained that the EU’s executive branch would maintain a “technology neutral” approach to nuclear power.

“The huge advantage of nuclear power, of course, is that it’s emissions free,” he said. “If you come to the conclusion that this is your best option, the Commission will certainly not stand in your way and we will try and give some impetus to research in this area.”

However, he also warned about the vast cost of building, running and decommissioning nuclear power stations and the complications associated with importing uranium and safely storing high-level nuclear waste.

“You need fuel for it and you are left with waste that needs to be treated. That remains a very complicated issue, though we are making technological advances,” he said. “A second disadvantage is that it’s very expensive. If you invest in it, you’re stuck with it for a very, very long period of time.”

Timmermans said that European governments should decide on their future energy mixes in a “completely rational way” which takes into account the dramatically falling costs of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. The share of wind and solar in EU electricity generation is around 15 per cent.

“Do the numbers and then draw your conclusion, that’s my only plea,” he said.

Timmermans repeated his assertion that the Commission is technology neutral when questioned about carbon capture and storage technology: “We do not have a predisposition towards one or the other. What works best and cheapest is best.”

Timmermans’ comments would suggest that the EU Commission does not plan to interfere – such as by refusing to approve plans for state aid – with plans to build new nuclear infrastructure in order to meet decarbonisation targets in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Polish government announced last week that it would ask the Commission for approval for state for the construction of its first nuclear power plants, with Piotr Naimski, the minister for strategic energy infrastructure, commenting: “It is impossible these days to build a nuclear power plant without state support.”

This week, the Japanese Prime Minister announced that the country would work towards becoming carbon neutral by 2050. This is likely to lead to calls for the reopening of nuclear power stations in order to provide carbon-free electricity.