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The Fight Over the EU's Nuclear Ambitions, and What it Means for European Energy Research

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oel nuclear power station Belgium (photo IAEA)

Doel nuclear power station, Belgium (Photo: IAEA)

A leaked “strategy paper” in the German media has thrown  up fresh questions over what Europe intends to spend its innovation budget on. In the paper the European Commission and member states set out broad goals for the nuclear industry, including developing small modular reactors. Nuclear opponents reacted furiously. In her new Brussels Insider column, for the Energy Post Weekly premium newsletter, Sonja van Renssen investigates the fight over nuclear research – and over energy R&D in general – going on in the corridors of Brussels.

On 17 May, the Spiegel Online, one of Germany’s main media outlets, published a scoop entitled “EU wants to massively strengthen nuclear”. The author reported that a new “strategy paper” reveals that the European Commission wants to drive the construction of new nuclear plants and even develop new “mini-reactors”.

This was a juicy story for Germans, where the last nuclear plant is due to be shut down in 2022. The story catapulted up to the national level, with German Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, denouncing it: “It is absurd even to consider that one of the oldest technologies we use for energy generation in Europe, should get subsidies again.”

But what was this infamous “strategy paper”? Where did it come from? And what kind of impact could it have? Energy Post decided to investigate.

Impressive ambition

It turns out that  the strategy in question is a follow-up to the EU’s new Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan adopted in September 2015. This plan is supposed to be the innovation pillar of the Energy Union; just as the original SET Plan, conceived back in 2007, was supposed to be the technology pillar of the EU’s first climate and energy package.

From the start, its impressive ambition has been to align energy R&D efforts in Europe with the EU policy agenda. No easy task, as you can imagine: the European research effort is as fragmented as its energy market. Different member states have different priorities.

The new SET Plan consciously moves away from promoting research into individual energy technologies such as wind and solar, to champion an energy system approach to innovation. It breaks down six R&D priorities set out in the Energy Union (renewables, consumers, energy efficiency, transport, plus nuclear and carbon capture and storage for member states who are interested) into ten priority actions. The goal is “to accelerate the energy system transformation and create jobs and growth”.

One example of a priority action is “become competitive in the global battery sector to drive e-mobility forward”. Another is “maintaining a high level of safety of nuclear reactors and associated fuel cycles during operation and decommissioning, while improving their efficiency”.

Each of these ten actions is supposed to be fleshed out further with an agreement between the European Commission, member states and other stakeholders on strategic targets and an implementation plan to deliver them. What the Spiegel Online leaked was the draft agreement on strategic targets developed by the Commission, after consultation with member states and stakeholders, for nuclear safety research.


So what’s the problem? The issue is that the document appears to interpret its safety mandate very generously. “It’s not just about safety,” says Bram Claeys from Greenpeace. “Its purpose is clearly to grow the share of nuclear energy and further subsidise nuclear energy.” He also points out that there is no environmental NGO working on nuclear safety on the list of stakeholders who were consulted for it.

Is this a fair assessment? Greenpeace is known to be anti-nuclear and the leaked paper has since been made public by the German Greens. Yet certainly there is text in there that seems to go beyond R&D on safety. For example, one of the “targets” in the paper is “a flexible electricity grid that allows the integration of large baseload suppliers”. Some experts predict an end to baseload altogether, as soon as by 2030 in Germany, as renewables take over the energy system. Whether or not you agree, power market design is not safety R&D.

Another target is “stable/predictable investment conditions, including availability of appropriate financing schemes, such as contracts for difference”. Again, what is the link to safety R&D? Finally, the paper also sets a specific goal to develop “advanced and innovative fission reactors”, by which it means small modular reactors (SMRs). “This is the first time SMRs are considered as a priority,” one EU source said.  

Famous PINC

These targets go beyond nuclear safety, decommissioning and waste management. To some extent, they go beyond the Commission’s own paper on nuclear investments (the famous PINC) published just last month. In that, for example, it is much more ambivalent about SMRs – the nuclear industry has considered their deployment since the 1950s, it says.

No wonder hackles are up and no wonder the EU Commissioner for Research, Carlos Moedas, felt obliged to respond. “The future lies in renewables… not nuclear,” he insisted to German magazine Focus on Sunday 22 May. The Commission also felt that it was important enough to post an official reaction on its site, in which it “rejects allegations of push for nuclear energy”.

Through the Euratom Treaty, member states have given the Commission a mandate to put safety and waste management at the core of European nuclear research. The Commission says in its response that it will “stick to the mandate” and “nuclear fission research will focus solely on safety, waste management and radiation protection”. It does not refer to any of the specific language under fire in the draft paper.

Note that you can see the public document that the draft agreement is based on – and indeed similar documents for the other energy research priorities, including an already finalised agreement on strategic targets for photovoltaics research – here.

Attention and money

The EU’s ambitions on nuclear remain unclear at this point. The draft agreement has yet to be adopted and may in theory still be amended. Why does it matter at all? Because the SET Plan and its offshoots determine what projects ultimately get political attention and money. There are no funds directly attached to the SET Plan but it will guide the expenditure of EU R&D funds in the Horizon 2020, plus national and private funds.

A question that remains is why countries such as Germany did not speak out earlier when the Commission was consulting on its draft agreement. One EU source said that the consultation went to research, not energy departments, who did not flag it up to their colleagues.

What remains is that there are lots of competing priorities for innovation funds. Two new reports released in Brussels this week suggest that one, the EU could turn its historic climate leadership into a global competitive advantage for its industries and two it could deliver enormous carbon reductions through ICT. Nuclear energy, which traditionally made up 80% of government spending on energy R&D in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, does not emerge as a priority in these studies.

This article was first published under Sonja van Renssen’s Brussels Insider column, part of our new premium newsletter Energy Post Weekly, which will appear every Friday. Energy Post Weekly also offers a weekly Energy Watch by editor-in-chief Karel Beckman and Energy Post Express which provides a quick roundup of all articles published on our website. For a free preview, click here.

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Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Jun 2, 2016

No wonder nuclear UK is seeking Brexit.

Malcolm Metcalfe's picture
Malcolm Metcalfe on Jun 3, 2016

Strange that Germany says little about the new coal generation that is to displace the nuclear capacity that is being shut down. The last article that I saw suggested that some of these would burn lignite coal. Targeted life is 35+ years.

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