Within the European Union, recognizing nuclear energy as green, sustainable, and worthy of investment depends on nuclear being added to the EU taxonomy of “sustainable investments that have been found to ‘do no significant harm’ to human health and to the environment.” The EU will issue a final taxonomy this year, and a decision to include nuclear power—which was excluded from a draft released in late 2020—could raise prospects for public and private nuclear investments both inside and outside the EU.
The decision rests with the European Commission (EC), which will take into consideration expert opinions, including those in a scientific report of the EC’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) that was requested last summer. The JRC's 387-page report, Technical assessment of nuclear energy with respect to the ‘do no significant harm’ criteria of Regulation (EU) 2020/852 (‘Taxonomy Regulation’), was leaked to the media and made available online on March 26. The report supports adding nuclear to the taxonomy.
What did the JRC conclude? Among the main conclusions of the report provided in the executive summary is this: “The analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the taxonomy as activities supporting climate change mitigation.”
Main findings: The report provides pages of findings from the JRC’s review, including the following:
- Nuclear energy has very low nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and nonmethane volatile organic compounds emissions. The values are comparable to or better than the corresponding emissions from the solar photovoltaics and wind energy chains.
- With regard to acidification and eutrophication potentials, nuclear energy is comparable to or better than solar photovoltaics and wind.
- The same is true for freshwater and marine ecotoxicity, ozone depletion, and photochemical oxidant creation potential.
- Land occupation of nuclear energy generation is about the same as for an equivalent-capacity gas-fired power plant but significantly smaller than that for wind or solar photovoltaics.
Radiation and accidents: Findings of a review of the impact of ionizing radiation on human health and the potential impact of severe accidents include the following:
- The average annual exposure to a member of the public due to effects attributable to nuclear energy–based electricity production is about 0.2 microsieverts, which is ten thousand times less than the average annual dose due to the natural background radiation.
- The total impact on human health of both the radiological and nonradiological emissions from nuclear energy are comparable with the human health impact from offshore wind energy.
- Potentially harmful effects of ionizing radiation to professionally exposed personnel are prevented by strict radioprotection measures, monitoring, and limiting occupational doses. The ALARA (as low and reasonably achievable) principle is applied to optimize plant maintenance by minimizing workers’ radiation doses.
- With regard to public exposure in case of accidents, severe accident fatality rates and maximum consequences (fatalities) are much smaller than that from any form of fossil fuel–based electricity production and comparable with hydropower in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries and wind power. (Only solar power has significantly lower fatality rate.)
- Severe accidents with core meltdown did happen in nuclear power plants, and the public is aware of the consequences of the three major accidents: Three Mile Island (1979, United States), Chernobyl (1986, Soviet Union), and Fukushima (2011, Japan). The nuclear power plants involved in these accidents were of various types (pressurized water reactor, RBMK, and boiling water reactor), and the circumstances leading to these events were also very different. Severe accidents are events with extremely low probability but with potentially serious consequences, and they cannot be ruled out with 100 percent certainty.
- After the Chernobyl accident, international and national efforts focused on developing Gen III nuclear power plants designed according to enhanced requirements related to severe accident prevention and mitigation. The deployment of various Gen III plant designs started in the past 15 years worldwide, and now practically only Gen III reactors are constructed and commissioned. The fatality rates characterizing state-of-the-art Gen III nuclear power plants are the lowest of all the electricity generation technologies.
- The consequences of a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can be significant both for human health and the environment. Very conservative estimates of the maximum consequences of a hypothetical severe nuclear accident, in terms of the number of human fatalities, are comparable with the maximum consequences of severe accidents for other electricity supply technologies.
The report acknowledged nuclear energy impacts on water consumption and potential thermal pollution of water bodies, and it also concluded that “appropriate measures to prevent the occurrence of the potentially harmful impacts or mitigate their consequences can be implemented using existing technology at reasonable costs.”
Background: The EU taxonomy will direct investments toward sustainable projects to meet the EU’s climate change mitigation and energy-mix targets for 2030 while considering risks to human health and the environment. The taxonomy will define what investments count, at least within the EU, as “environmentally sustainable economic activities.”
In June 2019 the EC’s Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance (TEG) concluded that nuclear energy has greenhouse gas emissions near zero and can be a contributor to climate mitigation objectives, but the TEG “could not reach a definite conclusion on potential significant harm to other environmental objectives, in particular considering the lack of operational permanent experience of high-level waste disposal sites.”
The TEG recommended that more investigation be done into whether nuclear plants “do no significant harm,” and during the summer of 2020 the JRC was asked to carry out that work.
A delicate compromise: Leaders of France, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia wrote a joint letter on March 19 urging the EC to support nuclear in policies including the taxonomy. Other countries, including Germany and Austria, have opposed including nuclear in the taxonomy.
A response to a question posed to the European Parliament in December 2020, on why nuclear had been excluded from a draft taxonomy, was made available on March 10. The response, offered on behalf of the EC, stated that “while nuclear energy is generally recognized as a low-carbon energy source, views differ notably on the potential environmental impact of nuclear waste. Reflecting the delicate compromise among co-legislators on the issue, following the Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance recommendations, and in order to carry out a credible, scientifically rigorous and balanced assessment, the Commission’s Joint Research Centre will report on the ‘do no significant harm’ aspects of nuclear energy.”
What’s next? The JRC report is to be released publicly this week in its final form. It will then be reviewed by experts on nuclear radiation and waste and on environmental impacts, and those inputs will be taken into consideration as the EC makes its decision regarding the EU taxonomy.