Her comments came following a summit of the bloc’s 27 member states after which French president Emmanuel Macron also spoke on the nuclear issue, saying, “never before has such clear and broad support been expressed for the need to use nuclear energy to achieve our climate goals”.
Mr Macron recently announced that by 2030 France, which generates a bigger share of its electricity from nuclear than any other country, must be a leader in carbon-free power production with one small modular reactor in operation and nuclear plants used to produce clean hydrogen through electrolysis.
Ms von der Leyen said that while the EU must drastically reduce its CO2 emissions to combat climate change, “it is obvious that we need more renewable and clean energy”.
Renewables such as wind and solar have fallen in cost and do not depend on imports, she told a press conference, adding that they will offer “a lot of independence” to the EU.
However, alongside renewables “we need a stable source, nuclear; and during the transition, of course, natural gas”, the head of the bloc’s executive body said.
The commission must put forward before the end of the year final proposals for its sustainable finance taxonomy – a list of energies considered beneficial for the climate.
This will open up access to finance that will give these technologies a crucial competitive advantage.
“A very large majority of member states” wanted to include both gas and nuclear in the taxonomy, a European diplomat told AFP. Two other officials confirmed the level of support.
In the context of the current gas price crisis 10 EU states, led by France, published a statement in mid-October supporting nuclear power. France, which gets about 70% of its power from nuclear and is a major exporter of electricity, is preparing to restart construction of nuclear power plants.
But other countries, including Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, are opposed to nuclear, pointing to the problem of very long-term storage of radioactive waste.
The taxonomy is a package of regulations that governs investment in activities that the EU says are environmentally friendly. Brussels hopes the rules will steer private capital into climate-friendly projects.
The European commission originally decided not to include nuclear energy in the taxonomy, but later said it would include it under a complementary delegated act. The act would include the technical screening criteria for determining the conditions under which nuclear could qualify as contributing to sustainability and climate change mitigation.
The commission’s decision on nuclear has been delayed by months and faced heavy lobbying from EU governments, who disagree on whether the fuel deserve a sustainable label.
Energy commissioner Kadri Simson said the final taxonomy and delegated acts are expected in the near future, while observers had been hoping for a December update before the end of the French EU presidency. “From our point of view every member state can choose its own energy mix and have a unique path to carbon neutrality,” said Ms Simson.
She said nuclear energy is consistently acknowledged as a low-carbon energy source but opinions differ on the potential impact on the “environmental objectives”. She said the environmental impact of nuclear waste was the reason why the commission is carefully analysing the view of experts and their reports.
The energy mix of the future needs more renewables and clean energy alongside stable sources during the transition, both nuclear and natural gas, Ms Simson said. “These are the sources that the commission is going to address in our taxonomy second delegated act in the near future.”
The EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the commission’s scientific expert arm, was asked to assess whether the EU should label nuclear power as a green investment. It concluded in April that nuclear fuel qualified as sustainable and does no more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production sources already included in the bloc’s taxonomy.
The EC asked two more expert groups – the Euratom Article 31 expert group on radiation protection and the scientific committee on health, environmental and emerging risks (Scheer) – to review JRC’s report and provide an opinion on the matter against the taxonomy’s “do no significant harm” criteria.
The Article 31 group report, published on 2 July, confirmed overall JRC’s findings related to the protection of humans against radiation, deep geological repositories as means to handle fuel waste, and nuclear’s compliance with various regulatory frameworks established by the EU.
The Scheer report said the committee found JRC’s findings as “comprehensive” with respect of the non-radiological impact of nuclear. However, the report said “there are several findings where the report is incomplete and requires to be enhanced with further evidence.”