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Austria, Luxembourg eye legal steps in EU nuclear row

January 21, 2022

The European Commission wants to designate nuclear power as a climate-friendly energy source, but several nations remain opposed. Austria has said it's willing to fight the notion of "green" nuclear power in court.

A Greenpeace slogan projected on a nuclear powerplant in Germany
The Greenpeace slogan reads 'For a Europe free of nuclear power'Image: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

The European Union remains deeply divided over the so-called taxonomy plans, which aim to direct investment toward sustainable energy sources. On Friday, Austria and Luxembourg signaled that they are ready to take the dispute over nuclear energy to court.

The 27-member bloc is planning to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. To achieve this, the EU will need massive long-term investment into sustainable energy sources. A new draft document proposed by the EU Commission would put nuclear energy into the "green" camp, making it easier for states and the private sector to invest money in it. But Austria and several other EU members are categorically opposed to the label.

"We have always said, when the Commission continues on this road, Austria will take legal steps," Austrian Climate and Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler said on her arrival to a meeting of EU energy ministers in Amiens, France, on Friday.

Gewessler said Vienna had "serious concerns" about nuclear energy being too expensive and too slow to actually help in the fight against climate change. Earlier this week, the minister also pointed to the issue of nuclear waste and that it has not yet been solved.

"It is as if we are giving our children a backpack and saying 'you'll get rid of it one day,'" Gewessler told the AFP news agency.

Luxembourg, Spain, Denmark join the fray

The small, wealthy EU nation of Luxembourg is also considering a lawsuit over the European Commission's proposal. Luxembourg's environment minister, Carole Dieschbourg, urged Germany to join the effort. The minister also noted that labeling nuclear energy as "green" would send a wrong signal.

"If it happens, it would be greenwashing," she said.

Spain and Denmark also joined the appeal against the proposed taxonomy on Thursday.

France, which gets about 70% percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants and is preparing to build new reactors, supports classifying nuclear energy as green. In France and some other EU nations, nuclear power is seen as a low-carbon alternative to burning fossil fuels. 

Germany: Against nuclear power, but split on gas?

Germany has also voiced reservations about nuclear power.

As EU members were due to respond to the proposal by midnight on Friday, the German dpa news agency reported that Berlin has submitted its "strong rejection" to the EU Commission.   

The country is turning its back on nuclear power and is in the process of shutting down its few remaining nuclear plants. This, however, has increased its reliance on natural gas — which the EU Commission has also declared "green" in the same taxonomy proposal.

The issue also seems to be controversial even inside the German ruling coalition, with Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, from the Greens, openly slamming the proposed EU taxonomy as "greenwashing" and saying such a stance on gas and nuclear power would "water down" the sustainability label.

Government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann said earlier that Berlin would voice its "firm conviction" that nuclear power should not be labeled eco-friendly.

"We believe this technology is too dangerous," she said. However, she was notably cautious when speaking about Berlin's stance on gas, describing it as a "bridge technology" aimed to help Germany transition to sustainable energy sources.

dj/sms (AFP, Reuters)