Clean Energy

Why the EU didn't include nuclear energy in its plan to get off Russian gas

Key Points
  • The International Energy Agency, a policy organization with members from 31 national governments, and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, have both recently published plans for how Europe should accomplish being weaned of Russian gas.
  • Those plans are roughly parallel, with a major exception: nuclear power.
  • Nuclear power is a polarized source of energy in the EU.
Saint Alban les Eaux nuclear power plant, commissioned in 1985, exterior view, town of Saint Maurice l'Exil, department of Isere, France
Eric Bascol | Istock Editorial | Getty Images

For Europe, the war in Ukraine has created an urgent priority to stop being dependent on Russian gas.

The International Energy Agency, a policy organization with members from 31 national governments, and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, both recently published plans for how Europe should accomplish this.

The two published plans are roughly parallel, recommending the EU focus on renewables, efficiency and imports of liquid natural gas. They do, however, differ in one obvious way.

The plan from the IEA recommends keeping existing nuclear plants operating, while the plan from the EU makes no explicit reference to nuclear power at all.

Addressing natural gas imports from Russia is no small feat. About 25% of the EU's energy consumption comes from natural gas, according to the Directorate-General for Energy for the EU. And the EU produces only 10% of the natural gas it needs, importing the rest from countries like Russia (41%), Norway (24%), and Algeria (11%).

In a press briefing on Tuesday, Frans Timmermans, an executive vice president of the EU's Green New Deal, was asked about nuclear power, since it was not included in the written documents.

"Member States are free in the choices they make in terms of their energy mix," Timmermans said, according to a transcript provided CNBC by a European Commission spokesperson. Member states in the EU are "legally bound" to reduce their emissions, Timmermans said, and "we will support them in the choices they make."

Timmermans said a reliance on nuclear should be accompanied by an equal buildout of renewables.

"It is imaginable that some Member States would decide to, for instance, not use gas as a transitional energy carrier but then remain a bit longer with nuclear or with coal than they had imagined," Timmermans said. "If that is combined with a speeding up for the introduction of renewable energy for climate and for our energy self-sufficiency, that could be two wins."

Politics differ by country

Nuclear power does not release any harmful greenhouse gasses when it is generated, but the construction of a conventional nuclear power plant may result in some emissions and critics worry about the risk of nuclear accidents and how to store radioactive nuclear waste.

Public sentiment around nuclear power affects local politics, and in the EU, those sentiments change country by country. When the European Commission suggested in February that nuclear and coal could play a role in the transition to clean energy, it drew drew ire from many European leaders.

"Adding nuclear capacity is clearly part of the measures that should be taken, but nuclear has always been a difficult topic for the EU as certain countries, like France and Finland, are pro-nuclear and other countries, like Germany and Sweden, are against nuclear," explained Kim Talus, a professor of energy law at Tulane University.

Public sentiment aside, ramping up nuclear power takes time, which Europe does not have in its plan to lessen its dependence on Russian gas.

"Nuclear power stations should already be running at full capacity, but mostly they are not," said Jonathan Stern, a ​distinguished research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. "Additional capacity takes years before it can be brought on line. New nuclear stations which are under construction may be available in the next few years but are notoriously late."

Some nuclear power stations, particularly in France and Germany, are not running at full capacity because they've been programed to operate in what's called "load-following mode," adjusting to demand and balancing out the intermittency of renewable energy sources — for instance, running at higher output when the sun's not shining or the wind's not blowing, or when there are particular spikes in demand that renewables cannot handle.

The World Nuclear Association, a nuclear industry group, recognizes the unequal focus on nuclear power in the IEA and EU's plans.

"It is true that the emphasis in the document is on securing gas supplies and developing renewables," said WNA spokesperson Jonathan Cobb. The IEA's plan "should be considered," Cobb told CNBC.

But it's also important to look at the situation country-by-country, the WNA said. In Belgium, previous plans to shut down nuclear power plants in the country are being reconsidered by governmental officials. And in Germany, where national leaders continue to disavow nuclear energy, the minister-president of the region of Bavaria has called for extending the life of nuclear plants there, according to Cobb.

"The reasons given for rejecting the extended operation of reactors in Germany are not insurmountable and should not be a reason for ruling out this option," Cobb told CNBC.

How nuclear power will drive our energy future
The future of nuclear power