The role of nuclear energy in the EU’s Sustainable Taxonomy Regulation


The EU’s Sustainable Taxonomy Regulation - the list of green activities contributing to the green transition - is currently being discussed. Originally designed with clear and neutral criteria developed by experts and scientists and based upon solid science, the EU taxonomy had the potential to be the first international standard to define green investments. But since then, the debate has been monopolised by lobbies and governments, replacing the initial science-based approach with a political national interest approach.

Teaser Image Caption
GP1SU0D8 Anti-nuclear Action at Belgian Embassy in Luxembourg, on 10 June 2020.

This analysis is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".


The political debate is now focusing on two types of energy that were at first excluded: nuclear energy and fossil gas. How might these discussions undermine the taxonomy that is potentially a central tool to enhance investments in the green transition and why should they be banished from this instrument?

The goal of the sustainable taxonomy is to define what activities are “green” for public and private investments and funding, meaning what will contribute to the European Green Deal objectives and allow the Union to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The taxonomy will establish a code of what is environmentally sustainable and what is not.

This tool could really be a game changer for investments, but it has to be properly designed. Six areas[1] have been defined and for an investment to be qualified as green, itmust contribute to one of them and not harm the other five, in accordance with the “Do No Significant Harm” principle[2]. Being good in terms of emissions reduction does not mean that the activity will not damage biodiversity, for example.

The discussions are increasingly political and less and less based on science and neutral criteria. The lobby to add nuclear to the list is massive, especially with the new report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) that recommends including nuclear on the “green” list, even though it was initially excluded.

This centre was created in the 1950s as a centre for nuclear research and even though it has since broadened its activities, it is still strongly linked to Euratom (a public institution in charge of coordinating the research on nuclear energy at the European level). In that regard, one can clearly consider the JRC report issued in March 2021 to be biased because of the institution’s connections to the nuclear industry[3].

The first report on the EU taxonomy, published in March 2020 by the Technical Expert Group (TEG), had concluded that nuclear should be excluded, based on the non-respect of the “Do No Significant Harm” principle in all six areas[4].

First of all, regarding the climate aspect of nuclear energy, this energy may be considered as almost carbon-free since it emits little CO2. However, it is an expensive and slow technology that does not comply with the climate emergency the world is facing. The IPCC considers that it takes 10 to 19 years for a nuclear power plant to become operational. It is therefore not an energy source that can be rapidly deployed to face the actual crisis. Nuclear energy is not suitable to mitigate climate change because it is highly water-intensive and will struggle to adjust to increasing water scarcity and the anticipated more frequent heat waves of the next decades.

Nor does nuclear energy comply with the transition to a circular economy because of the radioactive waste and the finite resources of uranium. For pollution prevention and control, the risk of pollution in the event of a nuclear accident is disastrous, particularly because of long-term radioactivity pollution and the cost of control would be excessive. Due to its use of water, nuclear energy also has an impact on biodiversity and water and marine resources since the water is released at a high temperature and thus affects the local environment of the nuclear power plants.

The risk with the inclusion of nuclear energy in the taxonomy is that investments and funding will be redirected to an energy form that is expensive and is not an efficient and fast response to the current climate crisis. Categorising nuclear energy as a sustainable source of energy would lead to a renewal of investments in this expensive industry, which is mainly supported, in France, by the public sector and is seeing its costs sky-rocket (the new nuclear power plants will produce n electricity at a cost estimated between €70 and €90 per megawatt-hour[5], as opposed to €50 to €65 per megawatt-hour for electricity from renewable sources). It would also deprive renewable sources of energy that are crucial for climate action of important funds.

To explain the debate on its inclusion, the political context of the negotiations cannot be ignored. At the European level, several countries are opposed to atomic energy and it is a sensitive question. This energy was supposed to be discussed after fossil gas, but the postponement of the current draft under the pressure to include the later opened the discussion and intensive lobbying efforts have been made to consider nuclear energy at the same time. The fate of the two energies thus became strongly linked in the negotiations.  Fossil gas was initially excluded, as it should be, but is now back under consideration by the European Commission under pressure from ten EU Member States, such as Poland and Hungary[6], which want it to be qualified as a “transition energy”. On this question, France plays a central part[7]. It has been very silent on the subject of fossil gas in recent months, but the French President, Emmanuel Macron, has been much more vocal about nuclear power by signing a letter to push for the inclusion of nuclear energy, with six pro-gas countries (Hungary, Poland, Czechia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). They have been supported by a letter from 46 pro-nuclear NGOs to Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission), calling for the inclusion of nuclear energy[8] on 27 March 27 2021.  This coalition shows that the nuclear energy and fossil gas lobbies are helping each other to open the door of the taxonomy to harmful energies[9].

However, there is a strong mobilisation from civil society to defend a credible taxonomy, with almost 1,000 people from the sustainable finance sector writing to the EU Commission on 8 April 8 2021, to ask for credible sustainable finance rules, criticising the presence of fossil gas and nuclear energy[10]. Already in December 2020, 130 NGOs stated that fossil gas had rightly been excluded and that they were opposed to the inclusion of nuclear power in the taxonomy.

The first delegated act published on April 21 2021 does not include fossil gas and nuclear energy, but postpones the discussion for this summer. By letting these two energies being discussed together, it lets the door open for both of them and encourage alliances between them.

With the inclusion of both fossil gas and nuclear energy, the European Sustainable Taxonomy would be undermined, and what could be a powerful tool would instead become an instrument to greenwash investments and funding. By failing to adopt a real green taxonomy, the EU will miss the opportunity to promote a strong vision of the European Green Deal internationally and to show leadership.


[1] The six areas are as follows: transition to a circular economy, pollution prevention and control, protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems, sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources, climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation.

[10] 08.04.2021-Open-Letter-to-EU-Commission-on-credible-Sustainable-Finance-rules-MEP-GIEGOLD-and-951-signatories.pdf ( They say that “under no circumstances should conventional gas-fired power plants or related infrastructure be counted as a greenhouse gas mitigation measure or an adaptation measure. [...] Investments in nuclear energy and in unsustainable forms of forestry should not be considered “sustainable” either”