EU Commission will not hinder pro-nuclear countries, says Timmermans

26 October 2020

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, today reiterated that all clean technologies, including nuclear, will be needed for a low-carbon economic recovery, while Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission, stressed that the Commission “would not stand in the way” of EU Member States that support nuclear power. Timmermans was speaking as Birol's guest in the latest edition of the IEA's Big Ideas speaker series

Fatih Birol and Frans Timmermans speaking today

Birol described Timmermans as the "architect and guardian" of the European Green Deal - the set of policy initiatives, announced at the end of last year, that aims to make Europe climate neutral in 2050. In July, EU leaders agreed on a EUR1.8 trillion (USD2.1 trillion) package to boost the recovery after the COVID-19 crisis, but also to contribute to the advancement of EU societal objectives, starting with the climate transition.

In May, Birol and Timmermans wrote in a joint op-ed that the pandemic had "erupted suddenly, catching many people off guard" and that "the science has long made clear the need for greater and more urgent action" on the major climate and biodiversity challenges the world faces. Earlier this month, in a joint op-ed with Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Birol wrote that the scale of the climate challenge means the world cannot afford to exclude nuclear power - the world's second-biggest source of low-carbon electricity.

During the Big Ideas webinar broadcast live today, Birol referred to the status of "king" the IEA had bestowed on solar power in its latest World Energy Outlook.

He asked Timmermans: "The share of solar and wind in EU electricity generation is close to 15%, but you have another zero-emission technology, nuclear power, which is about 27%. What are your thoughts about the existing nuclear fleet and possible new additions?"

Zimmemans replied: "The Commission is technology neutral, so if countries come to the conclusion that they want to use nuclear energy then the huge advantage of it is, of course, that it's emission free."

But nuclear energy has "two serious disadvantages", he said.

"The first is that you need fuel for it and you are left with waste that needs to be treated. That remains a very complicated issue, though we are making technological advances.

"A second disadvantage is that it's very expensive and if you invest in it, you're stuck with it for a very, very long period of time. Given the fact that solar and wind are coming down in price so quickly, then I just hope that countries will decide in a completely rational way ... If you come to the conclusion that it is your best option, then the Commission will certainly not stand in your way, and we will try and give some impetus to research in this area."

Timmermans did not refer to a point that has been stressed by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) that the falling costs of renewable energy, such as solar PV and wind, do not give governments an accurate picture of how to invest in low-carbon generation. The NEA has pointed out that the debate on financing clean energy transitions using renewables or nuclear has been wrongly confined to the levelised cost of electricity, which is a measure of the average net present cost of electricity production for a generating plant over its lifetime. Not enough attention has been paid, the NEA and others say, to the costs above the plant level, and in particular to what is referred to as the system costs.


Nor did Timmermans mention the European Commission's taxonomy on sustainable finance, which produces an emissions threshold - 100 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour - for qualifying sources of electricity consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees.

In March, the Commission published the final recommendations on the taxonomy by the technical expert group on sustainable finance, which included guidance to help investors and companies meet obligations for reporting against the framework.

In April, a group of more than 100 scientists and environmentalists wrote to Timmermans calling for a "timely and just assessment" of nuclear energy in the taxonomy. They wrote that nuclear currently provides more than 47% of the low-carbon electricity generation in the EU, and that nuclear also saves half a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions every year in Europe compared to fossil fuels. They said it is essential that assessing the taxonomy's Do No Significant Harm criterion for nuclear remains strictly technical, evidence-based and is conducted by qualified experts.

In July, Foratom, the European nuclear trade body, welcomed the Commission's decision to appoint its Joint Research Centre (JRC) as the group of experts that will assess nuclear under the taxonomy. However, Foratom noted that the JRC will not submit its findings until next year, after the relevant acts have already been finalised.

In response to publication of the World Energy Outlook earlier this month, World Nuclear Association said it supports the IEA's view that to achieve the clean energy transition identified in the agency's Sustainable Development Scenario, near-term actions to bolster nuclear power, including supporting lifetime extensions and expanding new build projects, are required.

Timmermans said today that the World Energy Outlook "is really helpful because it puts things in perspective". He said: "We are in the middle not just of a pandemic, not just of a climate crisis, not just of a biodiversity crisis; we’re also in the middle of an industrial revolution … In the private sector, in the energy sector and in politics, everybody soon came to the realisation that if we want to come out of this pandemic stronger and if we want to avoid pouring billions of euros in what are going to be stranded assets, we need to use the Green Deal as our growth strategy and our recovery strategy as well."

State aid

Asked about the role of state aid and how this impacts environmental regulation, Timmermans said rules on state aid are designed to ensure a level playing field in the European Union.

"It's clear that one of the reasons we had this huge package in July was to show that everybody understands that Member States are not all in the same position. Some have a lot more fiscal capacity to act and to support the industry and to help them come out of this crisis than other Member States. So we need to make sure that for the sake of the internal market, and for the sake of Europe’s economy, that everybody has the same opportunity to come out of this crisis. This is how we will be viewing state aid."

He added: "We've also made clear that now we need to invest and that this will also need to happen with public money into our recovery, and we’ve also made clear to Member States that when they submit their recovery plans that none of the money should go in a direction that is counter to what we want to achieve with the Green Deal. If you take the next generation EU recovery plans and you put it together with the budget plans for the next seven years, 30% of everything spent will have to go in climate policy. So this gives a huge boost to the transformational agenda, and it also puts state aid in a perspective that would reinforce the internal market and not weaken it."

Poland announced last week that it will ask the European Commission to approve state aid for the construction of what will be the country's first nuclear power plants, with Secretary of State for Strategic Energy Infrastructure Piotr Naimski saying, "It is impossible these days to build a nuclear power plant without state support." Both Hungary and the UK went through state aid talks with the Commission over their respective nuclear power plant projects, Paks II and Hinkley Point C.

Coal phaseout

Asked about carbon capture and storage, Timmermans said this is "a very controversial issue" but repeated the Commission's position of being technology neutral. He said: "We don't have a pre-disposition towards one or the other. What works best and cheapest is best. Just imagine you’re energy mix is 80% coal, just as an illustration, natural gas will play a role as a transitional fuel because it already has a lower footprint than wood or coal."

All countries that still depend on coal have made plans to phase it out, he said. "It's Germany, it's also Poland now, the Czech Republic is thinking about it, Greece is moving at lightning speed - they're moving out of lignite in a couple of years' time, which shows incredible leadership."

Just transition

Birol asked how a 'just transition' can be applied to the whole world, noting that Sub-Saharan Africa currently has the same installed capacity of solar PV - 5 gigawatts - as the Netherlands, Timmermans' native country.

Timmermans said: "We as the industrialised world, the richest part of the world, we have until the Glasgow COP to demonstrate especially to those countries in Africa and think about the countries in the Pacific, that we mean business, not just in terms of our own policies but also in terms of our support for adaptation and mitigation. And also our support for bringing energy to parts of the world that don’t have [enough], and perhaps leapfrogging over a number of developments so that they go [straight] into clean energy."

He added: "Look at the consequences for Arica: the locust plagues they face, the erratic weather and the unpredictability of seasons. These are huge challenges they need to adapt to, they need to mitigate the consequences of, and we need to be on side with them."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News