Alarm bells ring over Europe's nuclear expansion

As Japan's nuclear crisis deepens, fears are growing within Europe's wind industry about European Commission plans to put nuclear power on a par with renewable energies in the post-2020 low-carbon environment.

The EU's 2050 roadmap, launched on 8 March, was widely praised by environmentalists. But after 2020, it sheds any mention of "renewable" targets, talking instead of "low carbon" ones, which could include nuclear power, carbon capture and storage (CCS)-fitted coal plants and gas.

"The disappearance of the 'renewables' language after 2020 is problematic and troubling in the sense that you know that it's coming from the nuclear and the CCS lobby," Steve Sawyer, secretary-general of the Global Wind Energy Council.

Some businesses at a European Wind Energy Association conference in Brussels were also concerned about the Commission's choice of terminology, although few would go public for fear of alienating potential customers.

One who did was Marcello Deplano, a business development manager for leading Italian renewable energy company Relight.

"It is terrible for us when you have changes like this because then there’s no certainty," he told EurActiv. If the EU sends out contradictory signals, he fears that the plans of member states will be thrown into doubt.

"For us this is more of a danger," he said. "When things are changing year after year, month after month, it becomes difficult to operate."

In theory, the roadmap pledges to reduce carbon emissions in the power sector by between 93 and 97% on 1990 levels by 2050. But in practice, environmentalists fear that it is leaving the door open to short-term, high carbon-intensity projects that would sabotage this goal.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have already agreed projects such as a €770m loan for a lignite coal plant in Slovenia which would make that country unable to meet the 2050 target.

The EIB has also provided €6.6 billion of loans to finance nuclear power stations, experimental nuclear power facilities and nuclear fuel cycle projects in France, Belgium, the UK and Italy.

Since 2007, it has considered nuclear projects under its 'Clean Energy for Europe' policy.

Christian Kjaer, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), maintains that it would be "scientifically wrong" to question the low-carbon credentials of nuclear power.

"There are all kinds of other things we can call it – like radioactive, potentially," he told the EWEA conference, answering a question from EurActiv.

But "low is a relative term," said Steve Sawyer, who contributed a chapter to an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on managing climate disasters, which will be published in May. "Compared to what?"

According to Sawyer, the forthcoming IPCC report will reveal that carbon emissions from nuclear power facilities clock up between 100 and 200 grams of carbon emissions per kilowatt hour (kWh). 'Clean' gas emits around 350 grams of carbon per kilowatt hour.    

But wind turbines emit no carbon when producing electricity.

One life-cycle assessment of the Vestas V90-3.0MW onshore turbine – which includes the manufacture of components – found that even here, only 4.64 grams of CO2 per kWh were created.

"Nuclear power is generally the most expensive, complicated and dangerous means ever devised by human beings to boil water," Sawyer said, summing up the anti-nuclear argument. 

"Why anyone would want to use it to generate electricity is beyond me, unless they were interested - as most European states were in the early days of nuclear history - in what comes out the other end, which is fissionable material for nuclear weapons," he added.

The EU agreed a new Renewable Energies Directive in December 2008, which turned into law its binding target to source 20% of the bloc's energy from renewable sources by 2020.

It also set itself a legally binding goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020, rising to 30% if other countries make comparable commitments.

In October 2009, EU leaders endorsed a long-term target of reducing collective developed country emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. This is in line with the recommendations of the UN's scientific arm - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - for preventing catastrophic changes to the Earth's climate.