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Tide is Turning for Nuclear, but Remaining Window of Opportunity is Finite.

Nov 18, 2019

Witold Strzelecki, Communications Manager, FORATOM

Witold StrzeleckiBrussels, Berlin, Madrid, Washington and 30 other cities all over the world hosted on 20 October a series of pro-nuclear events organised by an alliance of independent and non-profit groups committed to promoting nuclear energy. This grassroots initiative – “Stand Up for Nuclear” – focuses on informing about the pros of nuclear energy in a very direct and accessible manner. It makes the topic more appealing to those who are not familiar with the specifics of different energy sources but have a profound feeling that society cannot sit on its hands and watch the ongoing climate change challenge evolve. Similar events have been organised since 2016, but this year marks the first time that the gathering took place across several cities simultaneously and met with such enthusiasm. These developments give a clear signal that more people start to comprehend the importance of keeping nuclear energy in the mix in order to help countries, continents, and the world tackle the current challenges.

Also in October, a very compelling opinion poll was made public in Belgium – a country with a significant share of electricity generated by nuclear power (approx. 50%) that plans to phase out its whole nuclear fleet by 2025. According to the poll, 83% of Belgians believe that nuclear power should remain in the country’s energy mix – with 46% (up from 37% in 2017!) saying that plants should keep working beyond 2025. In addition, more than half of Belgians underline the role of nuclear power in counteracting climate change.

The list goes on. In Finland, some members of the Green Party (including members of the Finnish Parliament) have recently made a U-turn and started touting nuclear energy for its positive impact on the climate. In Poland, a recent story about the wealthiest Pole potentially investing in small modular reactors (SMR) made a splash and triggered a nation-wide debate on the need to invest in low-carbon capacity, which could help the country not only decarbonise its currently coal-dependent power system, but also provide a stable source of electricity. Most of pundits commenting on the topic expressed their absorption in the project’s success, even though they acknowledged the challenges associated with this project. Poland is not an exception in this matter. The country is among many EU Member States which see nuclear energy as part of their low-carbon energy future and have included it in their National Energy and Climate Plans submitted to the European Commission.

Finally, in order to reaffirm the notion of the ongoing turn of the tide, one can take a look at some of the latest scientific reports. The IPCC report (Global Warming of 1.5°C) recognises that nuclear power has an important role to play if the world is to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees, and according to the IEA (Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy system), a steep decline in nuclear power would threaten energy security and climate goals.

That being said, despite appearances, the future of nuclear energy – especially at EU level – doesn’t look like all sunshine and rainbows. Nuclear energy is facing a make-it-or-break-it moment that could potentially define its future in the long-term perspective. Even though, in its “Clean Planet for All” communication, the European Commission confirmed that nuclear will form the backbone of a carbon-free European power system (together with renewables), some of the proposals and official comments, that were released afterwards, don’t seem to reflect its approach.

To give just one example: “Taxonomy” is a new buzz word in Brussels. Excluding nuclear energy from a sustainable finance classification scheme on which the EU is currently working can lead to a significant slowdown in new nuclear capacity investment. Also, a recent mission letter from European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to Commissioner-designate for Energy Kadri Simson, in which Mrs. Simson is asked to “focus on the rapid implementation of energy-efficiency and renewable-energy legislation”, can raise many observers’ eyebrows and make them wonder where “the backbone” went.

During the first 100 days of her tenure, Mrs. von der Leyen promised to focus on proposing a European Green Deal – an overarching document laying down the principles of an EU strategy to achieve a carbon-neutrality by 2050. The strategy, orchestrated and supervised by Commissioner-designate Frans Timmermans, will determine the pathway in which the European Union will be heading. After that, it might be extremely difficult to modify the agreed direction.

That’s why today we’re entering crunch time during which all the pro-nuclear parties that may directly or indirectly contribute to this process (pro-nuclear EU Member States, European nuclear industry, NGOs, civil society, the public) have to step up their game and “Stand Up for Nuclear”. All hands are needed on deck before the window is closed.

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