A Science for Policy report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, dated 19 March, has concluded that nuclear is no more harmful to human health or to the environment than any other energy technology considered to be sustainable. The 397-page report, which according to European nuclear trade association Foratom, was “leaked” to the press, “aims to provide evidence-based scientific support to the European policymaking process”. It notes that “the scientific output expressed does not imply a policy position of the European Commission”. The report, titled “Technical assessment of nuclear energy with respect to the ‘do no significant harm’ criteria of Regulation (EU) 2020/852 (‘Taxonomy Regulation’), is designated “sensitive”. The assessment was conducted by JRC, whose mission is to support EU policies with independent evidence throughout the whole policy cycle.
JRC says tackling climate change is an urgent challenge, calling for for the EU to show global leadership by becoming climate-neutral by 2050 in all sectors of the economy. It notes that, to complement the existing policy framework, several European Green Deal Initiatives have been adopted and others are under preparation including the
‘Taxonomy Regulation’ “on the establishment of a framework to facilitate sustainable investment which provides appropriate definitions to companies and investors on which economic activities can be considered environmentally sustainable”. Whether to include nuclear energy in the EU taxonomy was debated throughout the negotiations on the Taxonomy Regulation. The assessment of nuclear energy was left to the Commission as part of its work on the establishment of technical screening criteria (TSC).
The Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance (TEG), tasked with advising the Commission on the TSC for the climate change mitigation and adaptation objectives, offered no conclusive recommendation on nuclear energy “and indicated that a further assessment of the ‘do no significant harm’ (DNSH) aspects of nuclear energy was necessary. JRC was then invited to carry out such analysis, resulting in the latest report which is a comprehensive assessment of the entire nuclear energy lifecycle in terms of existing and potential environmental impacts at all stages.
The key conclusions are as follows:
- The achievement and maintenance of a high level of safety during the lifetime of nuclear facilities and the duration of related activities requires a sound governmental, legal and regulatory framework, including regular safety reviews and strict monitoring and reporting
- The EU and its member states have established a comprehensive regulatory framework to ensure the safety of nuclear installations, in line with international requirements and recommendations.
- “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.”
- The comparison of impacts of various electricity generation technologies on human health and the environment “shows that the impacts of nuclear energy are mostly comparable with hydropower and the renewables, with regard to non-radiological effects”.
- For nuclear energy, its impact on water consumption and potential thermal pollution of water bodies must be appropriately addressed during the site selection, facility design and plant operation phases.
- The lifecycle phases of nuclear energy significantly contributing to potential radiological impacts on the environment and human health are: uranium mining and milling; NPP operation; and reprocessing of used fuel.
- “Related analyses demonstrate 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.”
- “Presently, there is broad scientific and technical consensus that disposal of high-level, long-lived radioactive waste in deep geologic formations is, at the state of today’s knowledge, considered as an appropriate and safe mean of isolating it from the biosphere for very long time scales.”
- The Taxonomy Expert Group considers that the challenges of safe long-term disposal of CO2 in geological facilities, which are similar to the challenges facing disposal of high-level radioactive waste, can be adequately managed. There is already an advanced regulatory framework in place in the communities for both carbon dioxide storage and radioactive waste management.
- From a non-radiological aspect, the disposal phase contributes only slightly to the overall greenhouse gas emissions, use of land, and generation of technological waste. It does not contribute (the results are zero or negligible) to those indicators representative of the impacts to the Taxonomy Regulation objectives of sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources, pollution prevention and control, and protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems.
- The raw materials used to build the multiple engineered barriers of the disposal facilities cannot be recovered. The amounts needed are small compared with world production and the long timeframes of the disposal.
- Although there remain contrasting views, it is generally acknowledged, that the necessary technologies for geological disposal are now available and can be deployed when public and political conditions are favourable.
- The radiological impact of nuclear energy lifecycle activities, including radioactive waste management and disposal, is regulated by law in the member states. Respecting these limits, establishing the boundaries below which no significant harm is caused to human life and to the environment, is a precondition for any nuclear lifecycle activity to be authorised and is monitored by independent authorities.
- Provided that all specific industrial activities in the whole nuclear fuel cycle comply with the nuclear and environmental regulatory frameworks and related TSC, measures to control and prevent potentially harmful impacts on human health and the environment are in place to ensure a very low impact of the use of nuclear energy.
- An important outcome from the report is the demonstration of the development of appropriate TSC for nuclear energy-based electricity generation according to the approach practised by the TEG in their work. The TSC published here are preliminary proposals, “illustrating that adequate criteria can be compiled to ensure that the application of nuclear energy does no significant harm to human health and the environment”.
Following release of the JCR report, Foratom on 29 March called on the EC “to move ahead with the inclusion of nuclear under the Sustainable finance Taxonomy and Ecolabel for Retail Financial Products”. Foratom Director General Yves Desbazeille, said: “We now have the assessment which we have been waiting for, and so the time has come for nuclear to be added to the taxonomy and the ecolabel.” He added: “At the same time, as an industry we will also pay serious attention to the recommendations which are put forward by the JRC to make sure that all technically feasible measures are implemented to render the European nuclear sector as sustainable as possible.”
Foratom said it “hopes that the Commission will take on board this scientific assessment and provide a clarity on how and when it will include nuclear under the taxonomy in the coming days”.
Release of the JCR report and Foratom’s demands came after seven leaders of EU, member states wrote to the EC on the role of nuclear power in EU climate and energy policy. Nuclear power is "a very promising source of low-carbon hydrogen at an affordable price" and "generates a considerable number of stable, quality jobs, which will be important in the post-COVID recession", they wrote.
Sama Bilbao y León, director general of World Nuclear Association, said: "The JRC report should be reviewed with due urgency” and called on the EC “to not delay in setting out the process and the timeline for the inclusion of nuclear energy within the Taxonomy, to safeguard the transparency of the process”.