In controversial move, EU says nuclear and gas could be green investments

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The European Commission has fueled tensions over the role of nuclear and gas in the clean energy transition when it proposed new rules today on what can be called a ‘green investment’. After more than a year of heated debate, it decided to consider gas and nuclear power as “sustainable” under certain conditions.

“Taking into account scientific advice and current technological progress, the Commission believes there is a role for private investment in gas and nuclear activities in the transition,” the Commission said in its announcement.

The EU has committed to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – a target study has shown it is necessary globally to avert the worst effects of climate change. The EU plans to cut emissions by more than half by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

To achieve those goals, the block needs a network that runs on carbon-free energy. But how much of that mix will be renewables like wind and solar versus more controversial energy sources like nuclear and gas is still up for debate. Nuclear energy is associated with concerns about accidents and what to do with radioactive waste. The gas industry has marketed itself as a cleaner-burning alternative to other fossil fuels – but recent research has shown it to be more polluting than previously thought due to methane leaks. Methane, which makes up the bulk of ‘natural gas’, is a greenhouse gas more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“We must use all available means,” Mairead McGuinness, Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets Union, said in a press statement. “Today we are setting strict terms to help mobilize funding to support this transition away from more harmful energy sources like coal.”

Under the new Commission rules, certain nuclear and gas projects can be labeled as sustainable ‘transitional activities’. That means they should help phase out dirty energy sources. The provisions outlined by the Commission include a 2030 deadline to obtain construction permits for new gas projects that limit their emissions and replace coal. New nuclear power plants that qualify to qualify as sustainable investments must secure their construction permits by 2045.

These new requirements represent an effort to classify nuclear power and gas under the EU taxonomy, a set of investor guidelines designed to “prevent greenwashing” by defining what is considered sustainable.

Proponents of considering nuclear and gas sustainable under the right conditions say the technologies are needed to provide a consistent source of energy when there is no abundant sunshine and wind. In the future, advanced batteries could solve that limitation with solar and wind energy. But in the meantime, there are already existing nuclear and gas plants that can intervene to keep the grid reliable, advocates say.

Nuclear and gas industries have also promised technological advances to quell environmental and safety concerns. For example, small modular nuclear reactors under development may require less fuel than older, less advanced reactors. Fossil fuel companies have also sold carbon capture technologies as a way to reduce planetary heating pollution from power plants. But the high cost of deploying these technologies has raised concerns about their feasibility and how they might impact customers’ energy bills. Energy prices in Europe are already volatile as countries phase out coal and grapple with tight gas supplies that could further squeeze Russia as a political negotiating tool.

In particular, the controversy surrounding nuclear energy pits France against Germany and Austria. France already gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants (making it more dependent on nuclear power than any other country in the world), and it plans to build even more nuclear reactors to meet its climate goals. Germany, on the other hand, plans to shut down all its nuclear power plants by the end of the year. Austria, which is also against an expansion of nuclear energy, has threatened legal action against the new rules.

The new rules will take effect in 2023 unless enough member states or MEPs vote to block them. So far, around 250 MEPs have pledged to block the rules, Reuters reports. At least 353 votes are needed to stop the measures.

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