EU not giving up on nuclear in quest for low-carbon future

Monday, September 24, 2007

With increasing energy-import dependency and the quest for climate-friendly energy production at the top of the EU's political agenda, the Commission last week (21 September) announced the creation of a new research platform to study 'sustainable' nuclear energy.

The new platform
"Energy consumption worldwide is likely to double between 2000 and 2050, and nuclear energy will remain a key element in future low-carbon energy systems," the Commission said in a 21 September press release that announced the launch of the EU's Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform (SNETP).

Part of the mandate of the new research platform will be to address concerns about the environmental sustainability and economic competitiveness of the EU's nuclear industry. Science and Research Commissioner Janek Potočnik is confident that "the answer to both these concerns can be found in research".

SNETP will function in the same way as other EU technology platforms, serving the function of research co-ordination and information dissemination to member states.

But the new platform has a more immediate political significance: its findings will influence the content ot the Commission's proposal for Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan), expected before the end of the year. The SET-Plan will include financing mechanisms and possible state-aid derogations for the support of low-carbon technologies.

To nuke or not to nuke
Whether or not to maintain nuclear in the EU's energy mix is among the most controversial issues in Europe. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace argue that there is no such thing as safe nuclear, and are pushing for a total phase-out.

But the EU's nuclear industry insists that the technology has an important part to play in climate-change mitigation.

Despite these disagreements, nuclear energy remains on the agenda for the time being. A new EU Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF), established in June (EurActiv 21/06/07), will meet twice per year to discuss the issue. ENEF was welcomed by EU Energy Commissioner Andris Pieblags as a chance to hold an "open debate without any taboo" on nuclear energy.

And in an apparent vote of confidence in the future of nuclear, Finland recently began construction of the EU's first new nuclear power plant since 1991.

Commenting on the launch of ENEF earlier this year, the European Atomic Forum (FORATOM) said that the Commission had sent out "a clear message that the days of nuclear energy being marginalised outside the mainstream energy debate - essentially for ideological reasons - are gone".

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned against a potential nuclear phase-out in Germany, saying that this will lead to increased dependance on energy imports.

But the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) disagrees, arguing that nuclear could easily be phased out without adverse consequences. Oliver Schäfer, EREC's Policy Director, also questioned why more research is needed to make nuclear energy environmentally sustainable: "How come after more than 50 years of shielding nuclear energy from the market with its own special treatment treaty (the Euratom Treaty) and massive subsidies of dozens of billions of euros, the sector is still not competitive enough to at least take care on its own of its waste?" he asked.

Greenpeace slammed the Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform, calling it "an initiative that has got everything wrong: Nuclear energy is not and cannot be made sustainable." The group also lamented that "nuclear power still receives far more research money than renewable energy does - it is time that this changed".

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