Despite being emission-free, nuclear energy has “serious disadvantages” in regards to the radioactive waste it produces and its very high cost compared to wind or solar energy, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice president for the Green Deal, cautioned.

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The Commission is neutral in terms of the technology EU member states wish to use to reach climate neutrality and won’t stand in the way of countries opting for nuclear power. But they should decide in a rational, dispassionate way, and consider the downsides, he told Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a webcast discussion on the European Green Deal.

According to Timmermans, disadvantages are “that you need [uranium] fuel for it, and that you’re left with waste that needs to be treated, which – as you know - remains a very complicated issue.”

Most EU countries using atomic power are still searching for an adequate way to store huge amounts of radioactive waste from their nuclear power stations long-term, which in the case of highly radioactive waste needs to be stored safely for one million years, according to Germany's office for radiation protection.

Massive investments

“The second disadvantage, is that it is very, very expensive. If you invest in it, you are stuck with it for very, very long period of time,” added Timmermans, who also is a former Dutch minister for foreign affairs.

The Dutch government last month said it is planning to launch a consultation on building new nuclear power plants after a study commissioned by the economics and climate ministry contrary to nearly all recent figures claimed atomic energy is as cheap as wind or solar power – and supposedly the safest way to produce electricity in the country.

All EU countries that currently are planning or building new nuclear capacity – such as the UK, France and Finland – have faced both worrying cost overruns and years-long construction delays.

Timmermans stopped short of condemning nuclear power altogether, but warned: “If you commit to nuclear energy - if you don’t have it yet and you want to go into it, or if you’ve gone out and want to go back in - be aware of the massive, massive level of investments you will need, and be aware of the cost for the life cycle of it!”

Transitional gas

The European Commission as part of its climate law proposal in March lobbied for the EU to become reach net zero emissions by 2050.

As an interim step, the European Commission has proposed to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 (compared to a 40% reduction when compared to 1990 levels that was valid so far). EU leaders – which need to approve any change to the reduction target - at a European Council meeting last week have postponed a decision on a steeper cut to December. The European Parliament wants an even more radical cut of 60%.

Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga today pledged his country would follow the EU, while Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month announced that China – the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases - would strive for climate neutrality by 2060.

"It is off huge importance that China at the highest level made this strong commitment," Timmermans said.

"There is now work being done to translate the commitment Xi Jinping made in the UN into the five-year plan, and what this would mean for coal-fired power stations and renewable energy."

The EU vice president also said there is an acknowledgement across the EU that there is no future in coal, and coal phase out plans will likely rather be moved forward than delayed.

In countries with a high share of coal in their electricity mix, “for example if the energy mix is 80% coal, natural gas will play the role of a transitional fuel,” Timmermans said in a hint to Eastern European EU members such as Poland.

“To decarbonise natural gas is technologically speaking easier,” he said, adding that if housing is still heated by wood or coal, to convert heating directly to renewable energy might be too challenging.

“If you could use gas that would already be helpful .”