Comment: Does greenwashing work for nuclear power?

The dispute is coming to a head: In January 2022, the EU wants to put rules and criteria for “sustainable business” into force. The “taxonomy” is an important element in the “Green New Deal” and is intended to direct investor money in the direction of climate protection. However, France used the initiative to secure EU funding for nuclear power in an alliance with Eastern European countries. There are now increasing signs that this strategy is actually working: At the end of October, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that nuclear power and, for a transitional period, natural gas would be included in the taxonomy. A corresponding wording proposal by the Commission that has also leaked out.

After studying physics, Wolfgang Stieler switched to journalism in 1998. Until 2005 he was editor of the Technology Review at c’t. There he oversees a wide range of topics from artificial intelligence and robotics to network policy and questions of future energy supply.

Nuclear proponents rely largely on an opinion from the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC). The experts come to the conclusion that the generation of energy through nuclear power would cause “no significant damage” in terms of a sustainable economy. This “do no significant harm” principle is a very important key criterion for sustainability in terms of taxonomy. Accordingly, an economic activity must make a significant contribution to an environmental goal such as climate protection without causing a “significant impairment” of other environmental goals.

French President Macron apparently feels encouraged by the EU position and only recently announced the development of small, modular reactors – a concept that has also received massive support in the USA for several years. There is a similar trend in Great Britain, where the Rolls-Royce Group announced that it would build “Small Modular Reactors” (SMR). Such “mini nuclear power plants” should deliver CO2-free, reliable electricity more cheaply and, above all, more safely than the old nuclear power plants – and thus help in the fight against climate change. The IPCC also relies on nuclear power. So does nuclear energy have to be reassessed in the face of all these developments?

How can Germany become climate neutral? How can AI improve climate models? And: what is behind negative emissions? The current climate special from MIT Technology Review (now available in well-stocked newsagents) revolves around these and other questions.

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The nuclear power experts at the Öko-Institut Darmstadt give the nuclear lobby everything in a comprehensive report that is too small, but modular reactors give little cause for hope. A general assessment of the concept is extremely difficult, as there is not even a generally applicable definition for such reactors and the technical concepts that fall under them are very different. However, the authors have not yet found any evidence that standardization and modularization in such reactors actually lead to the desired cost reduction.

In addition, many of the supposedly extremely innovative concepts such as molten salt or helium-cooled reactors are not fundamentally new – some of these concepts have already shown serious problems in test reactors. A fundamental problem with sodium-cooled reactors is, for example, that sodium must not come into contact with water – otherwise it will react violently. In contrast, in pebble bed reactors there were repeated problems with damaged fuel assemblies. Proponents of the new reactor concepts argue that there have been great advances in materials and the computation of reactor design in computers over the past 30 years. Whether that is really enough remains to be seen.

In order to build up a comprehensive basic energy supply with the help of small reactors, tens of thousands of such plants would have to be built – which would require massive state subsidies. The “new nuclear industry” also rules out a fundamental problem: radioactive waste. A massive increase in the share of nuclear energy worldwide would also exacerbate this – unsolved – problem.

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This is exactly where the Federal Office for Nuclear Waste Disposal Safety (BASE) sees the crux of the matter. The BASE experts come to the conclusion, not only in a contrary position to the GFS paper, that numerous subject areas with high environmental relevance are “reduced or omitted”. The BASE experts warn that “the problem of disposing of radioactive waste has already been postponed from previous generations and will inevitably persist for many more generations”. The principle “no unreasonable burdens for future generations” is thus “already (incurably) violated”. The fact that this argumentation is by no means purely formal and therefore toothless is shown by various climate judgments in which “unjust burdens” were rejected as inadmissible for future generations.


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