This week, the 27 national energy ministers of the EU gathered in Stockholm to discuss preparations for next winter as Europe continues to struggle with the energy supply effects of the Ukraine War. Although it was not on the agenda, one topic dominated the meeting: nuclear power. According to delegates who were there, French Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher took every opportunity on the sidelines to pressure countries into signing a new alliance pushing for nuclear energy to be at the heart of the EU’s green energy transition plans.

French Environment and Energy Ministers Clément Beaune and Agnès Pannier- Runacher speak to the press in Stockholm. (Photo by Swedish government)

In the end, Pannier-Runacher was successful in getting the signature of 11 ministers on a declaration forming the new group, from Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Sweden, which was hosting the meeting because it currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, is understood to be waiting to become the 12th signatory at the end of its presidency in July, since it must remain neutral while it holds the post. One crucial signature was missing, however: Italian Energy Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin. Although the new pro-nuclear government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had flirted with signing the declaration, in the end it decided not to reverse Italy’s long-time anti-nuclear position at this time.

“Nuclear energy is one of many tools to achieve our climate goals, to generate baseload electricity and to ensure security of supply,” the declaration says. The signatories will “cooperate more closely” across the entire nuclear supply chain, and promote “common industrial projects” in new generation capacity and new technologies like small modular reactors (SMRs).

Whether Italy will join France’s nuclear alliance has become the pivotal question. Since the UK left the EU in 2020, France has lost a powerful nuclear ally for decisions taken in the Council of the EU, the EU’s upper legislative chamber made up of national ministers, where countries’ voting power is weighted by population. Unless France could pick up new pro-nuclear votes, it risked facing an anti-nuclear majority in the Council. This meant that some quietly pro-nuclear countries like the Netherlands, who have until now preferred to stay vague on this controversial issue, would no longer be able to rely on the UK to do the advocating for them. The Dutch have joined the alliance, but they are a small country, and France desperately needs Italy’s large number of Council votes to ensure a majority for key pieces of legislation that will decide whether nuclear energy can count toward the EU’s climate targets.

The most famous of these is the EU taxonomy for green investment, which has been embroiled in controversy over whether nuclear should be considered green energy that can benefit from public support to help the EU reach its climate targets. Last year, France scored a partial victory on this, although the issue is far from definitively settled. That victory was followed by a number of others including the effective inclusion of nuclear power as a source of green hydrogen in a delegated act adopted last month. By now, it seems predictions that Brexit would tip the scales against nuclear in EU policymaking have not come to pass. In fact, momentum seems to be building in its favour.

No time for ideology

France is the largest user of nuclear power in Europe, with it generating around 70% of its electricity. Other heavy users include Hungary (50%) and Belgium (48%), although Belgium has not joined the alliance because the nuclear issue is so controversial in domestic Belgian politics. Not so in France, where there is broad consensus that nuclear has helped the country be a continental leader in low-emissions power generation. Italy, which phased out nuclear power decades ago, has struggled with power generation emissions reductions compared with France.

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Although safety concerns have dominated the nuclear discussion for decades, and were the reason for Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, an increasing number of environmentalists are embracing the technology as a solution to climate change. Some believe that the climate benefit outweighs safety risks. However, Germany, with the zeal of the convert, has been fighting the move towards dubbing nuclear 'green', becoming the loudest voice against it along with Austria.

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“We certainly see the [nuclear alliance] as a positive move,” says Yves Desbazeille, director-general of the European nuclear industry association nucleareurope. “In the past, we had the UK as a champion for nuclear at the Council of the EU, but unfortunately, with Brexit, it is no longer the case. It is something we had to somehow recover from, because we had a lack of political support, but now we see France taking the initiative in that respect, which is really a good development.”

Desbazeille says so far there are no big surprises on the signatory list for the alliance. “This club of like-minded member states is something that has existed for many years, but what is new with this is that it becomes more visible. In the past it was really something very informal, they were not really willing to be seen together as a group.”

That more countries are becoming vocal in making the case for nuclear power is important, he says, because the conversation has for so long been overwhelmed by ideology rather than science – and many politicians have avoided the issue like a third rail. The key question now for him too is Italy. “There was some debate on whether or not Italy will be involved,” he says. “This is more a question of, in my view, countries deciding whether they want to position themselves more visibly than others. The new Italian government coalition is much keener on nuclear than was the case in the past. There is the political will to at least seriously consider the nuclear option. Will it get to some formal decisions any time soon? I am not sure. I would characterise Italy as a positive observer at this point.”

French bullying

Anti-nuclear campaigners are watching the recent developments with dismay and fear countries are being bullied by France into taking positions that have not been fully thought through. “France has realised they don’t have a pro-nuclear majority in Council anymore, so they are trying to use every single opportunity to exert influence in a more informal way,” says Ariadna Rodrigo, a campaigner with Greenpeace in Brussels. She points to the failure last week of EU foreign ministers to agree a climate diplomacy resolution ahead of this year’s COP28 climate summit, because the French foreign minister refused to sign unless the text mentioned nuclear as a global opportunity for emissions reductions and green hydrogen production. France is one of the world’s biggest exporters of nuclear technology.

“Some of the attachés are very worried about this and the games that France is playing, where they say you put nuclear in this text or I am out,” Rodrigo says. “The discussions are becoming very difficult. France is playing hardball here; they are not allowing for any compromise. I understand the whole climate diplomacy conclusions will be put on ice for the time being.

“The way they see it, nuclear is part of the solution to make Europe low-carbon, and it should be on the same level as renewables, but the French themselves showed us last year how nuclear isn’t reliable, because they couldn’t operate all their plants due to water being too hot [due to heatwaves] and because of repairs,” she adds. Heatwaves will continue due to climate change, she says, so nuclear power is not good for climate adaptation. Also, in the current security context, it is dangerous that Europe is so reliant on Russia for nuclear fuel and nuclear technology – the main reason why Russian nuclear company Rosatom has so far been exempted from sanctions. “It is dangerous, it is toxic and it is not good for the environment because it needs so much water and generates so much radioactive waste,” says Rodrigo.

Upcoming votes a test for nuclear in the EU

Rodrigo believes France’s success in getting language on nuclear inserted into last month’s new EU rules for green hydrogen production, something that will benefit only it and Sweden, has emboldened Paris to push nuclear even harder into upcoming green files. In addition, the attendance of EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson at this week’s first nuclear alliance meeting in Stockholm suggests to her that the Commission is on board. “The hydrogen success is powering the push, and they will continue pushing,” she says. “They have a lot of support, not only from EU governments but also within the European Parliament.”

Speaking to journalists after the Stockholm meeting, Pannier-Runacher said the group of countries will push for nuclear to be better taken into account in all energy legislation at EU level, and “to work on a regulatory or legal framework for nuclear” that enables it to meet its full decarbonisation potential, “without opposing it to renewable energies”. She identified the most pressing issues to be innovation and new SMRs, upskilling workers, the authorisation of new facilities, cooperation on existing installations and nuclear subcontracting.

In the immediate term, the big prize is for nuclear to be recognised for green subsidies and state aid relaxation in the Green Deal Industrial Plan, Europe’s response to green subsidies in the US Inflation Reduction Act. The Commission is due to come forward with its list of eligible technologies in two weeks. “It is not yet clear what technologies are going to be in, but France is saying include nuclear technologies,” says nucleareurope’s Desbazeille. The proposal will need approval of member states, and Germany is likely to oppose the eligibility of nuclear. Nucleareurope is also working on building an SMR partnership at EU level to help stimulate the technology for these small reactors, and it is pushing for a number of EU funds to be opened up to nuclear power. “There are some funds in which nuclear today is not eligible, such as the Just Transition Fund, Invest EU and REPowerEU. We are not at all at the end of the journey. The next challenge is to make sure nuclear is included and has a level playing field in low-carbon generation.”