European Climate-Energy policies and nuclear: a disunited Union

Episode 1 – Luxembourg

We have already, and abundantly, addressed the question of the European classification system for sustainable activities, i.e. the EU taxonomy, in the newsletter of the Voices. We mentioned it already in December 2018 and the criticality of the topic has, early on and despite our obvious David and Goliath complex, encouraged us, since then, to sustainably dedicate significant portions of our limited resources to it:

  • taking concrete steps at the European commission and the European Parliament with answers to open consultations, direct contacts, and open letters to MEPs, encouraging and providing ready-made material to our European allies.
  • laying the foundation for future actions, such as registering with the European transparency register.
  • having the immense privilege and ultimate recognition of having our candidacy for the Sustainable Finance Platform rejected, just like all the other pronuclear candidacies. This Platform could have been the one last chance to prevent nuclear energy from being fully cast out from the list of “sustainable” investments, the basis of future decision-making by Europe and its member states.

The decisions taken today at the European level are more and more hostile to existing and future nuclear power, even though nuclear power in Europe means 108 nuclear power reactors, 1 million jobs, 100 billion €/year revenue and 26% of total electricity generation (dispatchable and carbon-free).

This hostility can be seen in the current discussions on the European Taxonomy, the European Green New Deal and the economic recovery plan, all favouring gas over nuclear, despite nuclear being 50 to 100 times less harmful to the climate than gas, and finally through the attempts to undermine the Euratom treaty, last bastion for those who hope for a prosperous, carbon-free and independent Europe.

Decisions at the European level impact all European member states and their national laws. Despite the fantasy it inspires, the European Union decision-making process is in fact more intricate than secret, more dependent on internal policies and issues of each individual country than bureaucratic, and in the end not that inaccessible to … us.

To understand European Union politics and policies, one must mostly understand the European Union itself.

We have hence decided to embark on a series of newsletters addressing some emblematic or key European countries and their relationship to nuclear, to the European Union and to their neighbours. How do they balance their sense of belonging and understanding of the common issues we face together with their own (cultural or economic) domestic approaches to nuclear?

Let us start with one whose influential though discreet role within the Union is consistent with its historical, economic, and geographical position : Luxembourg, home country of Jean-Claude Juncker.

Luxembourg and nuclear power: if NIMBY were a country…

By Silviu HERCHI, IT specialist, living in Luxembourg since 2008 and passionate about energy matters in general, and the contribution of nuclear power to mitigating climate change in particular.

In Luxembourg, the government makes no mystery of its anti-nuclear policy. The country of 600,000, which is about as large as the cities of Essen/Düsseldorf or Seattle, has long proclaimed that it considers the nearby presence of nuclear reactors in neighbouring countries as a threat to its very existence. Less than 10 km across the French border lies Cattenom and its four 1300 MW reactors. On the Belgian side, Tihange has three 1000 MW reactors less than 60 km across the border.

Nuclear plants closest to Luxembourg are Cattenom, Chooz and Tihange. Map by Google

85% of the 6.5 TWh of electricity used every year in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is imported

This deep distrust of nuclear power has fuelled an aggressive policy towards its neighbours on all nuclear-related issues – despite being completely dependent on them for electricity: 85% of the 6.5 TWh used every year in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is imported. A third of it comes from France and Belgium.

This doesn’t stop the Luxembourg government from taking a resolute anti-nuclear position towards its neighbours.

In 2012, under the Hollande administration, France decided to reduce the share of nuclear electricity in the mix from 75% to 50% with a deadline of 2025. However, in 2017, the Macron administration decided to postpone this goal to 2035. The main reason for this decision was the announcement that maintaining the deadline would mean adding 11 GW of gas-fired plants to the fleet, thus considerably increasing CO2 emissions from the power system. The delay was heavily criticized by the Luxembourg authorities, who had publicly hoped that Cattenom would be among the closed plants.

The plumes of the Cattenom NPP drifting over Dudelange, in Luxembourg. Despite a common misconception, the plumes are made of pure water. Almost all of the water drawn from the river to cool the plant is returned immediately. Only 3% of it evaporates in the plume. The water droplets do not participate in anthropic global warming, as they enter into the water cycle which includes precipitations, contrary to CO2, methane (CH4) or nitrous oxide (N2O) which accumulate in the atmosphere. Credits Andreas von Astiburg @astiburg

The Luxembourg government keeps on repeating its concerns at every opportunity, including at the closing of Fessenheim in June this year, when Luxembourg went as far as “advising” EDF to close Cattenom and replace it with a solar plant.

The attacks were so reckless that the Belgian minister in charge of the Energy spoke of a “major diplomatic incident”

Nor is Belgium immune to attacks from Luxembourg. Luxembourg repeatedly expressed its concerns regarding the 2015 restart of Tihange after the discovery of micro-cracks in the reactor vessels. More recently, the announcement by ONDRAF (Belgium’s federal office for nuclear waste management) that it is considering deep geological waste disposal sites was met with an aggressive communication from the Luxembourg Minister of Ecology. The attacks were so aggressive that the Belgian minister in charge of energy, Marie-Christine Marghem, spoke of a “major diplomatic incident” and accused the Luxembourg authorities of spreading disinformation. Her position was triggered by official statements in Luxembourg implying that the project threatens the lives of its citizens.

Carole Dieschbourg, Minister of Environment, presenting a map of potential sites considered by Belgium for waste disposal during a press conference in May 2020. Belgian officials later called this map and the accompanying allegations “disinformation”. Credits SIP/Emmanuel Claude

Germany is the only neighbour to escape the criticism of the Luxembourg government

Luxembourg also passed new legislation this year which allows its citizens to sue foreign nuclear power producers in the event of a nuclear incident. Critics in the political opposition were quick to point out that the law has very dubious legal grounds (the plaintiff has no requirement to demonstrate the responsibility of the power producer with regards to their claims), and that the moral argument is difficult to justify when the share of nuclear power imported from France and Belgium has remained stable during the legislative period. Even less understandable, since the government considers nuclear electricity unacceptable, is the continued investment of the national pension fund in EDF and Engie, the two companies operating the Cattenom and Tihange plants.

Germany is the only neighbour to escape the criticism of the Luxembourg government. The very high CO2 emissions of the German power grid, and of even more immediate concern, the toxic emissions of the coal plants do not seem to be a problem for the Luxembourg government, despite their short- and long-term public health impact, as long as Germany closes nuclear reactors.

Luxembourg is regularly affected by the emissions from German coal power plants – however the country is more concerned with what-if issues in the French and Belgian power plants. Credits Europe Beyond Coal

The government did not hesitate to borrow “alternative facts” straight from some NGOs false claims

At the European level, the “not in my backyard” attitude extends into trying to stop other countries from benefiting from the advantages nuclear power offers. Along with Germany and Austria, Luxembourg is an active part of the coalition that tries to block new nuclear projects. Luxembourg and Austria sued the United Kingdom and Hungary in the European Court of Justice, requesting that these countries be forbidden to support nuclear power projects using public funding. The legal actions have been unsuccessful so far, and Austria lodged an appeal in cassation after losing the initial trial and the following appeal. It is of note that France, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania were opposed to the coalition on this issue.

Incidentally, in the context of these legal proceedings, the government did not hesitate to borrow “alternative facts” straight from some NGOs’ false claims regarding the CO2 performance of nuclear power. According to the website detailing why Luxembourg supports Austria’s claims, nuclear power “was scientifically demonstrated to have […] considerable emissions of CO2 per kWh, and is not comparable to sustainable energy such as wind or solar power”. The United Nations IPCC findings flatly contradict these claims and put nuclear power on par with or better than any renewable source*.

Ce que les autorités doivent maintenant réconcilier, c’est leur profond sentiment anti-nucléaire et leur besoin toujours croissant d’électricité bas carbone

Luxembourg is currently the worst climate offender in Europe per resident. With 20 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year, a Luxembourger emits more than twice as much as a German, and is closer to the residents of the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf than to Europeans. Even worse, since 2016 the emissions are increasing again, at odds with the general trend in Europe. Road transportation, responsible for 40% of this catastrophic result, is now one of the targets of the government, which has recently started pushing hard for the electrification of the transportation sector. What the authorities will need to reconcile now is their deep anti-nuclear sentiment and the ever-increasing need for low-carbon electricity. In the meantime, they will probably continue advocating the schizophrenic “have your cake and eat it too” policy of decreasing emissions while closing down nuclear plants.

Notes

*The carbon intensity of each power source is calculated on the complete life cycle (extraction, transport, transformation, dismantling, waste management etc.). The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated the following median values, expressed in grams of CO2 equivalent:

  • Nuclear 12 g/kWh
  • Wind 11-12 g/kWh
  • Hydro 24 g/kWh
  • Photovoltaic 41-48 g/kWh
  • Gas 490 g/kWh
  • Coal 820 g/kWh

This was published in the Annex III of the 5th report of the IPCC, page 1335.

French nuclear power has an even lower impact due to technical differences in its life cycle, and was evaluated at as low as 5.3 g/kWh in a peer-reviewed scientific study (cf. Table 2).

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