EU Policy. Green groups reject nuclear renaissance as governments seek climate fix

Anti-nuclear campaigners stage a protest as government leaders gather in Brussels to promote a global nuclear revival.
Anti-nuclear campaigners stage a protest as government leaders gather in Brussels to promote a global nuclear revival. Copyright Robert Hodgson / Euronews
By Robert Hodgson
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Roughly half of EU member states have joined a call for a global nuclear revival, arguing it will be an essential element in halting global warming, but climate campaigners argue a renewed focus on atomic power could distract from the urgently needed roll-out of renewable energy.

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France’s Emmanuel Macron is among some dozen EU government leaders who have called for international cooperation to boost investment in atomic power but green groups dismiss their assertion that it is an essential climate tool to halt global temperature rise.

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo attracted a raft of world leaders to a nuclear energy summit in the shadow of the iconic Atomium building in Brussels, to support his call for a renewed push for nuclear infrastructure deployment.

Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Slovakia, Slovenia and Italy were joined by a raft of Asian, North and South American and African countries in calling for policy support and financing in a declaration coordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

While much of the rhetoric from European leaders focused on the need to increase the EU’s “energy sovereignty”, they also hammered home the message that halting global heating would be impossible without boosting atomic power. But in a report published to coincide with the summit, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) says solar, wind and other green energy could replace even existing nuclear capacity.

“We realise we can’t reach net zero any time soon without investing in nuclear energy, so that is exactly what we are doing,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said, a remark echoed by one government leader after another before signing a Declaration on Nuclear Energy that describes nuclear as “a reliable and dispatchable zero emission source of electricity”.

Several government leaders recalled the reference to nuclear power in the conclusions of the COP28 climate conference last December, where it was one of several “zero- and low-emissions technologies” whose deployment should be “accelerated” – although some confused this global agreement with a separate pledge made at the UN summit in Dubai by 20 governments, France and the US among them, to triple nuclear power capacity worldwide by 2050.

A ’fairy tale’?

But the potential of nuclear power as a climate fix was questioned by environmental groups, who protested outside the conference venue to dismiss as a “fairy tale” the idea that building more reactors would help slow global temperature rise.

Without further extensions, most of Europe’s nuclear reactors will be ripe for decommissioning by 2040, the EEB notes in its report, arguing that a combination of energy savings and increased grid flexibility, combined with accelerated renewable energy deployment could provide sufficient electricity in Europe even if its ageing nuclear fleet was decommissioned.

Opening the event, De Croo spoke of Belgium’s decision to “reverse course” on the planned decommissioning of its reactors, while his European Council president Charles Michel spoke of the importance of reducing dependence on “unreliable regimes” for Europe’s energy supplies.

But Cosimo Tansini, a renewable energy specialist with the EEB, argued that nuclear power would become “redundant” as renewable energy capacity increases in parallel with falling demand for energy, in line with EU policy. “Take Spain, where soaring wind, solar, and hydro power have dropped electricity prices and forced energy companies to halt nuclear to avoid financial losses.”

Spain was not present at the summit in Brussels, which took place as EU leaders converged on the Belgian capital for a European Council summit. Also notable by its absence was Germany, which turned its back on nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

‘Distracting debate’

MEP Michael Bloss, whose Greens party is part of Berlin’s coalition government, was scathing about claims to nuclear energy’s green credentials, describing it as “a costly dead-end” that shows little return for huge public subsidies and takes years to deploy.

“We're tangled in a distracting debate that undermines our climate protection efforts,” Bloss said in a statement. “It's clear that France is scrambling to salvage its failing nuclear fleet, which is already bleeding money. With their energy giant EDF facing record losses, France seeks to extract new investment opportunities from the EU.”

Greenpeace activists tried to disrupt the summit by blocking roads leading to the area and holding a small but vocal protest outside the locked-down perimeter of the venue.

“All the evidence shows that nuclear power is too slow to build, too expensive, and it remains highly polluting and dangerous,” Greenpeace campaigner Lorelei Limousin said. “Governments should instead focus on investing in renewables and energy savings, and in real solutions that work for people like home insulation and public transport.”

The campaign group was one of some 600 civil society groups that signed a declaration ahead of the Belgian summit that accused the nuclear lobby of “hoping to divert massive sums of money away from real climate solutions”.

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Euronews asked De Croo if he believes the next EU executive should give policy support to nuclear power, and whether there is a risk of creating a division between countries that back it and those that do not.

“I don’t see that at all,” De Croo said. “I see respect for the choices that countries make, and I definitely see a discussion that is much more scientific than the ideological discussion that we used to see in the past.”

In the remaining months of Belgium’s six-month turn as EU Council presidency holder would “mainly focus on setting the agenda for the next commission”, De Croo said, noting that next-in-line Hungary was also pro-nuclear.

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