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The Ukrainian crisis has given a boost to nuclear energy, which is a way for Europe to get out of its dependence on Russian gas. Nuclear power was also presented, in particular by France, as a “green” source of energy. But environmentalists working to wean France off nuclear power warn that its continued use has derailed the country’s carbon targets.
“The carbon footprint per capita in France has not changed for years, while it has decreased in all the other Member States of the European Union”, says Marie Toussaint, French member of the European Parliament with the party of the Greens, who oppose labelling. nuclear as a green investment according to EU taxonomy rules.
The legislator asserts that while nuclear power can be emission-free, the construction of reactors is not, nor is the mining and importing of the uranium that powers the plants.
In addition, there are risks of nuclear accidents and problems with the storage of radioactive nuclear waste.
Listen to a conversation with Marie Toussaint in the Spotlight on France podcast:
France, which generates the majority of its electricity from nuclear, has used it as a crutch, Toussaint warns, and its reliance has prevented it from serious efforts to develop renewals and transition to a low-carbon economy. .
“We could have made efforts since the 1990s in the transport, building or agricultural sectors. [to reduce emissions]but we are stuck because we rely on the fact that our greenhouse gas emissions are quite low because of nuclear energy,” she says.
“Nuclear actually prevents any action, which is a problem for France, because all the other countries are moving forward.”
Even before the war in Ukraine sparked renewed interest in nuclear power in Europe, France had bet on it to help it meet its carbon emissions targets set in the Paris agreement and extended by the EU.
In February, President Emmanuel Macron relaunched the country’s nuclear program, advocating for energy self-sufficiency.
France has pushed the European Commission to label nuclear as a “green” investment in its taxonomy, a decision that is now in the hands of the European Parliament, which has until June to accept or reject the decision.
And with the Ukraine crisis pushing European countries to try to reduce their dependence on Russian imports of natural gas, nuclear is becoming increasingly attractive across the bloc.
The EU imports 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas every year, 40% of which comes from Russia.
An EU plan would cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of the year by accelerating the development of renewable energy and finding alternative sources of gas.
The plan makes no mention of nuclear power, although Frans Timmermans, EU vice-president in charge of the bloc’s Green New Deal, said member states “are free in the choices they make in terms of the energy mix”.
Countries are legally bound to cut emissions, so nuclear is an option, although Timmermans said it should be accompanied by equal investment in renewables.
Several countries are already increasing their use of coal, pausing plans to phase it out and replace it with natural gas.
Some Eastern European countries are also planning to increase their nuclear projects to meet medium-term energy needs.
But Toussaint says nuclear is not a good long-term solution, especially given Europe’s climate obligations.
Nuclear not as reliable
Getting approval and building a nuclear power plant takes time, and even with construction starting today, nothing will be operational until 2040 or 2045, “while we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 2030”.
Moreover, nuclear technology is not proving as reliable as its proponents had hoped.
Several French nuclear power plants have had to suspend their activities, facing technical problems and because maintenance operations have been delayed by Covid shutdowns.
And of the dozens of new reactors planned across Europe, only one has been in operation for more than a decade.
Construction of Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 reactor began in 2005, and it was only commissioned on Saturday, reaching full capacity in July.
“Money should be directed to green activities, not activities that endanger the security of the planet,” says Toussaint.
“If we take money and invest in nuclear, it is money that we are not investing in energy efficiency and renewable energies.
“It’s money that we put in the hands of the destroyers of the planet – the polluters – rather than in the hands of those who really want to have an economy that protects the planet.”
Find our interview with Marie Toussaint in the Spotlight on France podcast (episode 70).