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EU Sustainability Assessment: "Greens" facing a meltdown?

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At first it sounds like a bad joke, or a Brexiteer's fake news report: the EU is to declare power generation from nuclear and gas plants to be "environmentally sustainable". Of course, in the dense language of an EU regulation, it is not immediately obvious, allowing Germany's chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to claim the whole issue has been "grossly exaggerated", but it's true. The EU Commission's proposal is a crucial point in the restructuring of the energy industry.

Taxonomy Ordinance

The definition comes in the "Taxonomy Regulation", which is meant to define what counts as an "environmentally sustainable" investment. This was adopted in mid-2020, but only gave a general framework for the standardisation of national criteria for such investments. It was adopted by a "qualified majority" of the European Council (that is, EU heads of state and government, not the EU Council of Ministers or the Council of Europe) and the Parliament - and at the time caused hardly any controversy.

Article 23 of the regulation, however, gave the European Commission power to adopt "delegated Acts" specifying the "technical" definition of what is sustainable. Thus, it is the Commission's definition of sustainability that is the basis of the rules for future investment decisions across the EU. And - surprise, surprise, any attempts by EU member states or parliaments to reject that definition would have to overcome an enormous hurdle: support from at least 20 states with at least 65% of the EU population. This has to be compared to the "normal" legislative procedure, in which a blocking minority can be achieved with 4 member states with at least 35% of the population.

It is in this "technical regulation" that the Commission has now classified investments in nuclear and gas power plants as "sustainable". The procedure adopted is highly significant, and very questionable. The Taxonomy Regulation was initially intended to meet the sustainability definitions of the Rio process, which cover the whole range of threats to the environment. However, it was decided to deal with sustainability criteria regarding climate change first, by the end of 2021, before turning to all the other issues this year.

The climate crisis is only one, and not even the worst, of the nine global ecological threats listed by the Rockström Commission (species extinction, ocean acidification, waste disposal ... ). These are indeed listed in the EU regulation, which even says that "sustainable" does not only mean that a technology is compatible in one area, but that it must not be environmentally destructive in the other areas. Article 17 of the Regulation goes so far as to specify that a sustainable technology must not cause significant and long-term degradation of the environment through "long-term waste disposal".

This should mean, surely, that nuclear energy, with its very, very long-term waste disposal requirements, could never be sustainable under this regulation. However, by using only those articles and paragraphs of the basic regulation that relate to climate protection for its definition of sustainability, the Commission avoided this problem, while completely undermining the concept of sustainability! In a year's time, when the other environmental aspects are taken into account, the billions from the EU investment funds will already have flowed into the "sustainable" nuclear industry. Instead of expanding the much cheaper power generation by wind and solar technologies, the funds will continue to be poured into the billion-dollar grave of nuclear energy.

Nuclear industry - sustainability of a special kind

The nuclear industry, in its overall production cycle from uranium mining to enrichment, power plant operation, stages of interim storage or "reprocessing" to the probably insoluble problem of final storage, is the very opposite of "sustainable". The basic ecological problem is, of course, the radiation that is produced, which threatens the existence of all organic life forms, depending on the dose. The use of heavy radioactive isotopes for energy production requires their accumulation on a scale that never occurs in nature, for example, in rock formations. The process not only produces life-threatening fissile material as a final/waste product, but also at all intermediate stages.

The "short-lived" fission products of uranium decay, such as caesium-137, which has a 30-year half-life, are hazardous to health (according to the Radiation Protection Ordinance) at a concentration of 600 becquerels (core decay per second). After the Fukushima accident in 2011, the Japanese Academy of Sciences published a map of measured values for Cs-137, which showed a large part of the eastern provinces of Japan had a ground level contamination above 2,500 Bq. Similarly, safe limits for certain foods have been exceeded over wide areas as far away as Hawaii.

The now common downplaying of the Fukushima disaster (the many deaths were mainly due to the tsunami) completely ignores the lasting and widespread damage to the environment - including the resulting health consequences for humans and animals. Apart from this, the consequences of radioactive fallout on the climate, for example, through its effect on micro-organisms, have been proven in the meantime.

Uranium mining itself is one of the most environmentally damaging types of mining in terms of its CO2 balance. The excavation of the rock, which always only contains very small amounts of uranium ore, requires massive use of chemical and mechanical aids, leaving behind desert landscapes and dumps full of radioactive and chemically contaminated "residues". This probably does not enter "sustainability balances" because this mining is mainly carried out in Africa, Kazakhstan or indigenous regions of North America.

Resistance to uranium mining

The 1979 rupture of a uranium tailings pond at Rio Puerco, New Mexico, killed thousands of Native Americans, a nuclear accident that is hardly talked about. Mining of what is probably the largest uranium deposit in the world, in Greenland, is currently halted by the resistance of indigenous movements. The left-wing, socialist "Inuit Ataqatigiit" was elected to government precisely because it wants to prevent an Australian-Chinese consortium from developing the Kvanefjeld uranium mine. As the Greenland government proved, this mine would not only increase the country's carbon footprint by 45%, in a region that is currently at the centre of climate change, but also release a large amount of radioactive thorium into the surrounding fjords. The mining company in question is one of many that want to develop Greenland for oil and gas platforms, all of which have now been stopped, for the time being.

The autonomous government of the Canadian territory of Nunavut (6 times the size of Germany) has taken a similar approach. Here, one of the largest uranium mining projects of the French nuclear company Areva was stopped. The EU's "sustainability experts" will probably still try to convince the Inuit that uranium mining is enormously important for climate protection!

Alternatively, the EU corporations can become even more dependent on the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan, which was recently saved from mass protests by the "ore friend" Putin. The state-owned company, Kazatomprom, with the "help" of many international investors, is currently responsible for a third of the world's uranium ore mining. This is the "sustainable" support for an authoritarian and corrupt system that cares little about the environmental destruction of the country, which has already been badly affected ever since the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons tests. So much for achieving an energy supply independent of Putin & Co. by relying on nuclear power!

The situation is not much better when it comes to enrichment of fissile uranium-235 and the subsequent manufacture of fuel elements. Both the centrifugation of uranium hexafluoride and the fusion of uranium (IV) oxide with the fuel element ceramic produce high levels of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. Moreover, several serious accidents, such as the one at the Tokaimura fuel element plant in Japan in 1999, prove that this production step also makes nuclear fission energy a high-risk technology.

Operation and disposal

Of course, this applies all the more to the operation of the power plants themselves. Even if the radiation exposure of their surroundings may certainly be within acceptable limits during "normal operation", there have been and still are enough "incidents" in which serious contamination has occurred. This does not only apply to the near disasters at Harrisburg or Sellafield, smaller accidents have also resulted in the release of radioactive materials over the decades of operation.

In Europe, the limits for permissible radiation doses have been tightened, but this means that nuclear power plants need so much safety technology that they are by far the most expensive way of generating energy. Moreover, every engineer knows that there is no technical system that is "absolutely safe", which is why one must always work with a probability of error. The assumption that one could calculate a "maximum credible accident" within controllable limits, has therefore always been a risky hypothesis. This approach was clearly falsified by the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. In both, such unpredictable problems occurred that the safety precautions that could have been effective could only be known in retrospect. Of course, we are now much further ahead, but a new "unforeseeable" is always possible and in the case of a nuclear accident this could have incalculable consequences for people and the environment.

The biggest sustainability problem with nuclear energy is certainly disposal. This begins with the storage of spent fuel elements in the nuclear power plants themselves and their transport to interim storage facilities or reprocessing plants. It is precisely the "fresh" nuclear waste that contains the most dangerous, highly radioactive fission products that must be securely protected. The surroundings of the Sellafield and La Hague facilities, which are so central to the European fuel cycle, are a vivid testimony to this problem. Wastewater contamination is measured there with radiation doses that exceed the limits laid down in the Radiation Protection Ordinances by a factor of 26 and 7 respectively.

In addition, several studies have found increased marine radiation exposure in the wide vicinity of these plants which, by the way, also affects microorganisms in the ocean that are important for the climate. Interim storage facilities for "decayed" fuel elements, such as those that currently exist mainly in abandoned mine tunnels, also pose enormous problems. The drama surrounding Asse II, where 126,000 barrels of radioactive and chemical waste were to be stored for "decades", is well known. After only a few years, there was an "inexplicable" seepage of tens of thousands of litres of brine. The nuclear waste therefore had to be "salvaged" and shipped to another interim storage facility: Cost 3.35 billion euros.

Given the criteria for a "final repository" that would have to remain stable for several million years, geological investigations to date have revealed little that is encouraging. It is to be feared that, as in the case of the Asse, nuclear waste will have to be transported from interim storage facility to interim storage facility for centuries or, as is increasingly the case, simply be shipped off to Africa.

If one calculates the total costs of nuclear power, including waste storage, transport, maintenance costs, safety measures and the huge start-up subsidies, realistic estimates now come to a price of 37.8 cents per kilowatt hour. In comparison, the real cost for onshore wind plants is 8.8 cents (Forum Ökologisch-Soziale Markwirtschaft). Of course, production costs for other electricity generation are passed on to consumers directly, but the costs that are borne by the state in the case of coal and nuclear power are collected through taxes. This reduces the cost price per kWh from nuclear and gas-fired power plants enormously so that it seems lower than that for electricity from renewable energies.

EU subsidies for nuclear and gas power

Clearly, the "sustainability definition" of the EU regulation is there precisely to ensure that this subsidy business for nuclear and gas power remains possible. This corresponds to the interests of the corporations not only in France, but also in the countries that are only now beginning to phase out coal-fired power generation. What this prevents in particular is an end to the systematic discrimination against renewable energies in price determination. The subsidy business for ecologically questionable power plant technologies can blithely continue and the expansion of renewable energies for the entire EU will proceed far too slowly, as it has for decades. Nuclear energy may not be as harmful to the climate as coal and gas, but such a policy of delaying the restructuring of the energy industry will not contribute to a substantial reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Green Party revelation

In Germany, the Green Party has always made all these points; from the unsustainability of the nuclear industry, the financial discrimination against renewables, the need for a nuclear phase-out to accelerate the restructuring of the energy industry, etc. - as core elements of its ecological programme. Now, as the main pillar of a federal government in which it provides the ministers for the environment, climate protection/economy and foreign affairs, among others, one would expect it to do everything in its power to prevent this dirty deal by the EU Commission in favour of the electricity companies. The Climate and Economics Minister, Robert Habeck, has indeed pointed out that this regulation threatens to allow the French energy industry to offset the enormous nuclear power plant maintenance costs incurred this year as "climate protection investments" and thus not actually use the billions earmarked for this purpose from the "Green Deal" for the expansion of renewable energies.

In doing so, he has at least revealed what the deal is really about: France and Eastern Europe can continue to rely on nuclear energy if they have to increasingly phase out coal, while Germany gets natural gas as a "bridge technology" to hydrogen power generation ("bridge technology" is only a third-class seal of approval for sustainability anyway). This makes it abundantly clear that Scholz and Macron, bypassing the Greens, have found an "acceptable" compromise, against which there is little opposition among European governments, so far only from Austria, Denmark, Portugal and Luxembourg. This is also shown by the appeasement from the right-wing of the SPD parliamentary group and the FDP, who are urging that the regulation be accepted or abstained from. For the Greens, this would be the moment of truth, raising the question of what they, as an eco-party, are doing in such a government.

It is necessary to intensify the protests against the EU taxonomy regulation and to point out the consequences of continuing with the ecologically disastrous existing electricity industry in Europe. In doing so, we as socialists must make it clear that no restructuring of the industry that is oriented towards the market (of the electricity companies) can expect any other results. What is needed is a Europe-wide expropriation of the electricity companies without compensation under democratic control of the employees and consumers with the aim of a Europe-wide plan for the restructuring of a climate-friendly electricity industry!