Green energy from uranium and gas? This controversial compromise has roots in the history of European energy and environmental politics

An interview with Jan-Henrik Meyer about the EU Taxonomy and its proposed inclusion of nuclear and gas

January 25, 2022

The battle over the so-called ‘green taxonomy‘ is growing into a genuine stress test for European energy and fiscal politics. At the core of the controversy is the proposal to regard investments in nuclear and gas power plants as a way forward to achieve a CO2-free system. But the compromise, intended to meet German and French interests in particular, seems bound for failure. Jan-Henrik Meyer, researcher into transnational history of environmental politics at the mpilhlt, explains the role of the history of European environmental law in this context and describes the long-term impacts this dispute may have for the credibility of the European institutions.

Mr Meyer, it seems a bit unusual to call nuclear and gas ‘green energy’. How did the EU Commission come up with this proposal, and what is the political background?

In the short term, this is a compromise between Germany and France and between natural gas and nuclear energy, that would declare both as sustainable - and thus present a case of ‘greenwashing’. This compromise stands for the two diverging concepts of energy politics in the context of reaching a CO2-free future in Europe - in particular, one free of coal-generated energy.

The ’German approach’, which is also pursued by countries such as Denmark, Luxemburg or Portugal, aims to secure a steady supply of electricity through renewables. For this, gas power plants are required that can react quickly to the fluctuating performance of wind and solar. Opposed to this is the ‘French approach’, which is shared by countries such as Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Bulgaria and Czechia and probably soon also Poland.

This model continues to see nuclear plants as providing a stable power base load in order to secure the energy supply. Renewables play a minor part in this scenario; due to their fluctuating performance they don’t quite fit the system as nuclear plants can’t be quickly powered up or down. However, given that nuclear power plants everywhere are quite old and that ensuring their safe continuation would require billions of Euros for their refurbishment, or for new supporting structures, obtaining the label ‘green’ is an essential part of this energy strategy. In addition, the French nuclear plants are all owned by a heavily indebted, state-run monopolist. So the decisive factors are, above all, questions of economic, fiscal, and national energy policies.

Europe’s disagreements go way back to the early discussions about the development of nuclear energy. In different countries, these debates took very different courses. Why?

At first, there was a general consensus. Until the early 1970s, all of Europe agreed that the only way to meet the expected continuous growth in energy demand would be to build many nuclear power plants. Then the oil crisis hit, adding the need to ensure that the energy supply was secure. This was very important in France and Sweden in particular, countries that did not really have a coal industry and that had joined the development of nuclear energy early on - motivated also by military ambitions.

But as of the mid-1970s, protest increased.

Yes, but with varying degrees of success. In France - earlier than in Germany - the anti-nuclear movement was up against a strong government and a pro-nuclear consensus among the elite. After 1977, when a protester was killed during a demonstration in Malville, the anti-nuclear movement withdrew to the local level. The situation in Sweden was similar in that there was a strong consensus among the elite, but the Centre Party - in power as of 1976 - was against nuclear energy. In 1977 a law was passed that forced Swedish utility companies to deal with the question of nuclear waste repositories before further development of nuclear energy would be possible. However, in 1979 the national nuclear regulatory authority accepted the plans submitted by the energy providers, and consequently the expansion was resumed in parallel with test site drilling for waste repositories, which in turn was accompanied by renewed protest. Following the Three-Mile-Island incident in Harrisburg in 1979, the anti-nuclear movement demanded a referendum, and in 1980 this led to a vote, on a narrow margin, for a ‘moderate phase-out’ which allowed for a short-term massive expansion. This outcome had the effect of weakening the Swedish anti-nuclear movement in the long run.

Next door, in Denmark, nuclear power plants were still only visions on drawing boards when the anti-nuclear movement mobilised forces with great success - also in parliament. A decisive factor in the decision to bury the plans for any nuclear plants was the lack of suitable waste repositories in the densely populated country; Denmark’s intricate energy grid, on the other hand, enabled it to become a pioneer in wind energy.

Nuclear power plants were also built in Germany, despite substantial resistance - a factor that effectively led to the establishment of the Green Party, as you have recently described in an article for the Economist.

The position taken by the Federal Republic of Germany was somewhere in between. The consensus among the elite and the industry’s interest in the new technology were solid, but then so was the protest. The question of permanent storage was prominent ever since the selection of the town of Gorleben as a nuclear waste repository site; for example, the construction of the Brokdorf nuclear plant (which was taken off the grid at the end of 2021) was temporarily blocked by court decisions based on the as yet unsolved question of where to store the waste permanently. The Brokdorf protests also had consequences that were significant in the context of legal history: the case ended up with the Federal Constitutional Court and led to a redefinition of the right to demonstrate (Doering-Manteuffel, Greiner, and Lepsius 2015). The Gorleben protests, the resulting networks - closely linked to the Greens - and the ongoing conflict over the so-called ‘Castor transports’ of nuclear waste by rail paved the way, before and after Fukushima, for the protests that pushed Angela Merkel in 2011 to declare the definitive end of nuclear energy in Germany.

What significance does the current discussion about ‘greenwashing’ of nuclear and gas have for the credibility of the European institutions?

Controversial decisions always trigger question about the fragile legitimacy of European institutions. It is a fact that the EU does not have the traditional kind of legitimacy which nation-states so readily lay claim to. At the same time, the European institutions constitute a sort of never-ending machinery for finding compromises, and their most significant task is to balance national interests and transform them into functioning policies.

Which they don’t always achieve.

And Ursula von der Leyen, who as president of the Commission announced the European Green Deal, is now facing questions about whether she is enabling ‘greenwashing’. However, she cannot go against the preferences of the most important member states.

But there is another aspect to all of this. We often forget just how closely the concept of ‘peaceful nuclear energy’ was linked to the idea of European integration. One of the two European communities established in 1957 through the Treaties of Rome was the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom. And one of the resulting major projects was the massive expansion of nuclear research with a view to securing the energy of the future for Europe - in Ispra in Italy, but also in Karlsruhe and Jülich, in institutions which are part of the Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

The Taxonomy furthermore serves as a good example not only for interesting continuities, but also for the importance experts have in shaping European legislation and politics. The Joint Research Centre wrote the assessment report on which the Commission’s decision on the Taxonomy is based, and one of the two expert groups that re-evaluated this report for the Commission was formed in accordance with article 31 of the 1957 Euratom Treaty - a group dedicated to, in particular, health and safety issues.

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