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How the nuclear lobby scuttled the EU’s anti-greenwashing tool

A year ago expectations were high for what was considered the most important environmental legislation in Europe. The European Union’s taxonomy regulation was intended to become the global “gold standard” for science-based policies that direct investment towards climate-friendly goals.

But a long-delayed decision was made by the European Commission (EC) which finally included nuclear energy and gas as “environmentally sustainable economic activities”. The Additional Delegated Climate Act, a non-legislative addition to the Regulation, was adopted on 9 March 2022 and entered into force on 1 January this year. It is being challenged by Austria, a number of NGOs and a Member of the European Parliament.

Their argument is that the “sustainable” label given to nuclear energy and natural gas is inconsistent with the EU’s climate commitments, in breach of EU environmental law and incompatible with the “do no significant harm” criteria of the Taxonomy Regulation yourself. The EC refused to repeal the law, prompting the complainants to take legal action to the European Court of Justice.

As we await the court decision, it is important to remember how this legislation has been undermined by the nuclear lobby and what the consequences will be if it is not struck down.

Lobbying for nuclear power and gas

In December 2019, the European Union presented its Green Deal – a set of policy measures ultimately aimed at reducing, eliminating or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

It was recognized that to achieve such an ambitious goal, investments must be channeled into environmentally sustainable ventures. The challenge was to define such companies and prevent the good intentions of the Green Deal from being hijacked by ‘greenwashing’ companies.

This is where the EU taxonomy regulation came into play. It had to be a list of scientifically based technical criteria to distinguish economic activities that are truly sustainable from activities that are harmful to the environment.

It defined environmentally sustainable activities as contributing substantially to specific environmental goals that accelerate the low-carbon economy, observe safeguards and “do no significant harm” to the environment.

Nuclear energy and natural gas did not initially meet the taxonomy criteria. This, of course, went against major interests in the energy sector and it was to be expected that a lobbying blitz was launched to reverse this decision.

A report from Reclaim Finance, an NGO that studies the impact of financial actors on the climate, revealed that a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign had been launched to change regulations in favor of the natural gas and nuclear industries.

Lobbyists regularly met with EU representatives during critical stages of taxonomy deliberations. Russia, which would have been a major financial and geopolitical beneficiary of the financial incentives that would result from the uptake of gas and nuclear energy, was an extremely active stakeholders throughout the legislative process.

But there were also EU countries that tried to put pressure on the European Commission to change the provisions of the regulation. At the forefront of that effort were Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, whose leaders wrote a joint letter argue for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the regulation.

The document used several common claims and arguments in support of nuclear sustainability. We were part of a team of fact-checkers from four EU countries who found 20 statements in the letter to be false or misleading.

Among them were claims that nuclear power is “environmentally friendly”, “essential to the transition to clean energy sources”, a “promising source of hydrogen” and “affordable”.

A full analysis of the letter can be found here.

Why nuclear energy is not green

Why nuclear energy is not green is perhaps less obvious to the general public than natural gas. This is probably due to attempts by governments – such as the seven mentioned above – and organizations to mislead it.

False stories about ‘clean’ nuclear energy are also spread by intergovernmental organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the OECD and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

A frequently heard claim – which is also made in the letter to the EC – is that nuclear energy has a low-carbon status. But if nuclear power can be said to produce lower carbon emissions, that is only true at the point of generation. When the entire life cycle of nuclear power plants is taken into account, this thesis crumbles.

The “upstream” activities of nuclear energy necessary for its operation, such as uranium mining, as well as transporting fuel, building and then dismantling a power plant, and managing the radioactive waste that is a by-product of the process, are all linked to CO₂ emissions. The carbon footprint of nuclear power generation is thus significant, and by some estimates significantly higher than that of renewable energy sources.

Nuclear technology also requires significant amounts of cooling water and creates waste so toxic to the environment that no permanent storage solution has been developed in about 70 years. It also represents a risk of serious and lasting damage to large parts of the territory in the event of an accident – which is now increasing amid the current militarization of civilian nuclear facilities in Ukraine.

Nuclear power poses an unmanageable threat to the environment and falls short even as a so-called “transitional activity”, defined in the Regulation as an economic activity for which no low-carbon alternatives are available. This is because financing it today would derail the implementation of renewables by diverting investment away from it.

As Amory Lovins, a Stanford University professor and energy expert, says, “A low- or no-carbon energy source that costs more or takes longer to deploy will make climate change worse than one that is cheaper or faster, because the the latter saves more CO2 per euro and per year.”

Europe’s energy demand can easily be met by non-nuclear energy sources, and given the unreliability of nuclear power, with its aging and deteriorating reactors, and its vulnerability to extreme weather conditions, it is unlikely that there will be any energy contribution to be made in Europe. the transition to renewable energy sources.

Even the most favorable calculations of the cost of nuclear power show no advantage over renewable energy, with implementation costs falling sharply.

Government regulations keep consumer prices for nuclear electricity artificially low. In fact, nuclear power can only be made “competitive” with “hugely significant” public funding, as the EU Energy Commissioner inadvertently admitted in a recent speech. That is why the seven governments also advocate ‘active support’ for nuclear energy in their letter.

The plethora of nuclear delusions

There is a long history of trying to link nuclear technology to overly optimistic technocratic environmental achievements that never materialize.

Media-hyped nuclear fiction abounds. For example, a recent fusion experiment in the US was touted as an important milestone in the search for an abundant source of clean energy. Predictably, it had a rather anticlimactic ending for anyone paying attention.

The energy generated in the experiment was significantly less than the amount needed to power the lasers involved. And the laboratory where the celebrated breakthrough took place was set up to develop thermonuclear weapons, not civilian nuclear energy projects, which explains the billion-dollar budget.

Such nuclear myths are usually debunked by independent experts whose critical voices are often buried under irresponsibly promoted fantasies. The quagmire of disinformation is designed in part to mask the failures of the industry itself, but also to mask the military interests of nuclear governments, pushing unsupported theories to legitimize public funding. It is meant to confuse, demoralize and disable any organized effort to change things.

And the media, rather than exposing this deliberate deception of the public, has played a part in it. For example, European media reported on the letter from the seven EU countries lobbying for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU taxonomy regulation without checking the veracity of the claims.

For example, a misinformed public and passive media have enabled political actors to influence regulations that are supposed to be politically neutral. Well-intentioned, vital and comprehensive legislation, years in the making, has been undermined.

In its current form, this delegated act is likely to derail key climate goals for 2030 and 2050 and harm the Green Deal by negatively influencing green taxonomies being developed around the world. It will encourage greenwashing practices, divert capital flows to polluting sectors and disrupt progress made in implementing the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.