Greenwashing or Game-Changer? The EU’s Debate on the Sustainability of Nuclear Energy

For as long as we can remember, people have been taught that non-renewable energy sources can only be those that are found in limited quantities and that come from nuclear fuels or fossil fuels, the latter being without doubt the leading non-renewable energy source worldwide. Even though nuclear energy is by definition a renewable energy source, it is not considered as such because the material utilized in nuclear power plants is not in itself renewable.

That is to say; nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases nor pollute the air, and they can be built in any location as they do not destroy the habitat around them. However, the material commonly used to produce nuclear energy is a very rare type of uranium, U-235. This element is a non-renewable resource. Furthermore, nuclear energy is hard to harvest. Nuclear power plants are very complex to build and run, and workers are often negligent due to the lack of proper safety protocols. In addition, this type of energy produces radioactivity that can be extremely toxic to people who are exposed to it, and can be hard to eliminate from the soil1.

Nonetheless, although this is the current technical explanation, the European Parliament has changed its mind starting from July 6th. The Parliament’s plenary session granted the infamous “green” seal to both natural gas and nuclear energy. Announced by the European Commission in January, the controversial text considers investing in nuclear and natural gas power plants to be sustainable, if and only if state-of-the-art technology is used. This newfound classification, described as “taxonomy” in EU institutions, should help to mobilize funds for such types of projects. The initiative is part of the EU’s objective to be carbon neutral by 2050.

In principle, according to various European sources, there are only a few countries opposing the new proposal. These include Spain, Austria, Luxemburg, and Denmark. On the other hand, most northern and eastern countries, as well as France and Germany, find it very comfortable2.  


The European Commission recognizes that there is great and clear evidence of the potential of nuclear energy to substantially achieve the goals of the new climate change policies. The evidence also shows it can ease the development of intermittent renewable energy sources, and hopefully be available to use in the near future. Essentially, they consider nuclear energy to be a transition energy.

This Commission has stated that, although renewable energy has seen a great development over the years, to date, “There are no non-CO2 emitting sources of electricity generation that are technologically and economically viable on a scale sufficient to cover electricity demand continuously and reliably”. On the other hand, it considers that “the complete life cycle of nuclear energy has CO2 emissions close to zero”3.

This decision is still in the evaluation period, but once it has been made into law, and if none of the co-legislators object, this Complementary Delegated Act, which includes nuclear energy in the mechanisms of the taxonomy, will enter into force twenty days after its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union and will be applicable from January 1, 20233.

In conclusion, although nuclear energy isn’t a direct pollutant, it cannot be seen as a long term solution, as uranium sources will run out at some point, and if there is an accident the consequences would be dramatically devastating. It is not clear whether the socio-economic benefits outweigh the climatic ones in this decision, but what is clear is that one cannot have a utopian mentality and within current possibilities it is probably not the worst option. However, this option must solely be thought of as a transition energy, as the optimal objective remains having a completely renewable energy system in the future.

Writer: Irene Huerta

Traductrice: Divine Y.

EN – PT: Elisa Braga
EN – FR: Divine Danga
EN – ES: Lourdes Molina
EN – ITA: Alessandra Monopoli

Bibiography

E. Morse. July 29, 2022. Non-Renewable Energy. National Geographic. [online] Available at: <https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/non-renewable-energy>

A. Amerise. April 28, 2022. 7 claves para entender cómo funciona la energía nuclear y qué desafíos enfrenta para reemplazar al gas y al petróleo. BBC News. [online]. Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-60948209> 

DW. July 6, 2022. Parlamento Europeo aprueba que energía nuclear y gas se consideren verdes. [online]. Available at: <https://www.dw.com/es/parlamento-europeo-aprueba-que-energ%C3%ADa-nuclear-y-gas-se-consideren-verdes/a-62381134> 

Foro de la Industria Nuclear Española.  February 23, 2022. Energía nuclear en el marco de la taxonomía de la Unión Europea. [online]. Available at: <https://www.foronuclear.org/actualidad/noticias/energia-nuclear-en-el-marco-de-la-taxonomia-de-la-union-europea/>