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The History and Trajectory of the EU’s Relationship to Nuclear Energy

Source: Unsplash

The EU’s Energy Problem

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has painfully exposed the vulnerability of the EU’s energy security architecture. For decades, the EU had relied heavily on imports to cover its energy needs. The Russian Federation was by far its single largest provider. In 2019, its exports accounted for 47% of the EU’s imported coal, 41% of its natural gas, and 27% of its crude oil (CRF). Given this substantial dependency on Russia, many EU leaders hesitated to include its energy exports in their sanction packages. However, after mounting internal and external pressure, the EU did decide to implement import bans on Russian coal and price caps on Russian oil (European Commission). While this has deprived Vladimir Putin’s regime of a vital source of income and arguably its most effective tool for blackmailing European nations, it has left the EU with a dilemma: How could the bloc’s energy needs be met in the future?

For some within the EU, nuclear energy is at least a part of the answer to this question. As a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, it would help the EU to reach its net-zero emissions by 2050 while also strengthening the bloc’s energy autonomy. Extensively used by some member states, it accounts for more than a quarter of the electricity produced within the entire bloc (European Parliament). Others, however, deeply mistrust nuclear power. It is seen as a risky, slow, and expensive distraction from renewable energies.

The History of Nuclear Energy Within the EU

Opposing stances on nuclear energy have persisted for decades even though it was one of the founding issues of the EU. Signed in 1957, the Euratom Treaty established the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC). This entailed the promotion of research and the dissemination of technical information for the peaceful use of atomic energy. It also envisioned the rapid establishment and growth of nuclear industries across the EAEC. The Euratom Treaty would remain a vital aspect of intra-European relations. After all, the EAEC was one of the institutions that would go on to form the European Communities - the direct predecessor of the EU (European Parliament).

Starting in the 1950’s, Europe saw a steady increase in the number of nuclear reactors. Eventually, this number would peak in the mid 1980’s at 136 units in operation in the future EU27. The biggest proponents of nuclear power at the time were France, the UK, and Germany. However, not all European nations participated in the expansion of the nuclear industry. Several states, such as Austria and Denmark, limited the use of their reactors to research rather than commercial purposes (Heinrich-Böll Stiftung).

Watershed Moments

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster abruptly ended this boom of nuclear energy in Europe. It became a definitive turning point in Europe’s relationship to nuclear power. The incident made the potential risks of this energy source evident. Fierce opposition to nuclear power began to emerge all over Europe. As a result, the construction of nuclear reactors grinded to a halt. Only four new reactors have been built in the EU27 in the last 35 years. Moreover, 30 existing nuclear power plants have been taken off the grid. Italy and Lithuania even went as far as completely phasing out nuclear energy for domestic electricity production in subsequent years. The departure from nuclear energy gained more urgency with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Even more states pledged to phase out nuclear energy, most importantly Germany (Heinrich-Böll Stiftung).

Opposing Factions

Thus, the EU has found itself in a dilemma over the last decade. On the one hand, most member states want to continue the use of nuclear power. On the other hand, a smaller group of members strongly opposes nuclear power and lobbies for its phase-out in favor of renewable energy sources (Future Bridge). The dispute between these two factions came to a head during the creation of the EU taxonomy - essentially a list of economic activities and technologies deemed to be sustainable (European Commission).

Worryingly, the EU’s most powerful members - Germany and France - are leading these opposing factions. France is home to more than half of the EU’s nuclear reactors and derives roughly 70% of its electricity from them. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that France leads the pro-nuclear faction within the EU. Germany, on the other hand, has nearly completed its departure from nuclear energy. This decision was made in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and has been repeatedly confirmed ever since. Part of this determination stems from the fact Germany’s Greens are part of the current governing coalition. Like many Green parties across Europe, it materialized from anti-nuclear protest movements of the 1980’s. Hence, the opposition to nuclear power is a core issue of the Greens - and one that they will hardly turn their back to (DW).

Given this polarization within the EU, reaching a compromise was always going to be difficult. Although nuclear energy was eventually included in the EU taxonomy in 2020, there is hardly a common ground to speak of. The divisions remain. The leaders of Czechia, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia have issued a formal complaint to the European Commission about the stubborn resistance of some member states (The Economist). Undeterred, the anti-nuclear faction continued their opposition to the inclusion of nuclear power in the EU taxonomy. Austria - incidentally also led by a Green party - has gone so far as to launch a legal case against the EU Commission because of the taxonomy issue (ORF).

Figure 1: EU Member States with Operating Nuclear Power Plants as of January 2023 (Source: European Nuclear Society)

The War in Ukraine: Another Turning Point?

Many outside and inside the EU believed that the war in Ukraine could mark another turning point in the bloc’s relationship to nuclear energy. Given the loss of its biggest supplier of natural gas, it could have re-evaluated its stance on nuclear power. While a real nuclear renaissance has not occurred so far, there have been remarkable developments. Member states supporting nuclear power seem to be doubling down on their efforts. France is expanding research on new reactor types (DW). The Swedish government is creating the legal basis for the construction of new nuclear power plants (ORF). Poland will begin the construction of its first power plant in 2026 (The Economist). Others, such as Germany, have put their nuclear phase-out plans on hold for the time being. It delayed the shut-off of its remaining three nuclear reactors by several months (Bundesamt für die Sicherheit der nuklearen Entsorgung.

Nevertheless, the EU’s member states are still pulling in different policy directions. While it seems unlikely that the EU will find a common ground on the issue any time soon, nuclear power is almost certain to stay. It may very well play a critical role in the bloc’s strive towards a green economy. In any case, the EU ought to overcome its long-standing divisions on nuclear energy and agree upon a common path forward if it is to reach its goal of a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

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