The European Commission is open to considering subsidies for nuclear technology, according to Ursula von der Leyen. This topic has been a point of contention within the European Union
Speaking in the Czech Republic, a nation where over a third of its electricity is generated from nuclear power, the President of the European Commission emphasized that each member state has the freedom to determine its own path towards achieving climate neutrality.
“The choice of the energy mix is and will remain a national prerogative”, von der Leyen stated during a brief press statement alongside the country’s Prime Minister, Petr Fiala.
“We understand that nuclear energy plays a crucial role in Czechia’s energy system and will continue to require investment for its role in the Czech energy transition”, she further acknowledged.
“We are always willing to consider state aid, provided the conditions are appropriate. This is of paramount importance”, she added.
As the main enforcer of competition rules, the European Commission has the authority to approve or reject public funding that governments allocate to their national industries, which can take various forms including grants, reduced prices, and lower taxation.
If the Commission believes that state intervention poses a significant risk to the single market and could disadvantage other EU countries, it has the authority to reject the proposal. The principles of fairness and equality have guided the Commission’s decision-making since the inception of European integration and are currently enshrined in EU law.
However, in response to heightened global competition and the escalating costs associated with the green and digital transition, there has been increased scrutiny of longstanding competition policy guidelines. Some member states are advocating for greater flexibility to support their domestic industries and prevent industrial outflows.
The Commission has demonstrated some flexibility, particularly this year when it relaxed the rules for approving subsidies in six key areas of the green transition: batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps, electrolysers, and carbon capture technology. Additionally, Brussels introduced the Net-Zero Industry Act to significantly boost domestic production of these critical products.
It’s worth noting that the original draft of the Act does not include nuclear technology in its list of “strategic projects.” It briefly mentions “advanced technologies (that) produce energy from nuclear processes with minimal waste” and “small modular reactors,” which are still in development.
“We support cutting-edge nuclear technology under our Net-Zero Industry Act to boost innovation and cross-border cooperation”, stated von der Leyen during her visit to Prague.
Negotiations on the act are ongoing between member states and the European Parliament, where there is a push to classify nuclear as a “strategic project.”
However, reaching a consensus won’t be easy. Nuclear energy remains an extremely divisive and emotionally charged topic across the EU, with most countries sharply divided into pro- and anti-nuclear factions.
The pro-nuclear group, led by France, argues that nuclear is a low-carbon technology that can operate around the clock, reducing external dependencies. This position is supported by countries like the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
On the other hand, Germany, the EU’s industrial powerhouse, maintains an uncompromising anti-nuclear stance, supported by Spain, Portugal, Austria, Denmark, and Luxembourg. They believe that promoting nuclear energy amounts to greenwashing due to the carbon footprint of uranium extraction and the long-lasting radioactive waste.
Both sides have formed alliances and are working to bring in additional countries to solidify the qualified majority required to approve energy and climate legislation.
Prime Minister Fiala emphasized the importance of nuclear energy for the Czech Republic’s traditional industrial sector and as a means to achieve climate objectives. He underscored the government’s commitment to keeping nuclear energy a preferred source of clean energy in the country.
Fiala also mentioned that his team is currently evaluating tenders for expanding the capacity of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, which houses four of the country’s six nuclear reactors. Additionally, the government is in the process of drafting the notification that the Commission requires for review before making a decision on whether to approve or block the subsidies.
“The completion of the notification process is a top priority for us”, he stated. “I’m pleased that following today’s discussion with the President, I can see that there is a chance for us to succeed with the notification process.”
Over the past decade, the Commission has approved state aid related to nuclear power plants in Hungary, Belgium, and the United Kingdom (when it was still a member). The UK case was contested by Austria before the European Court of Justice, which ultimately ruled that subsidies for nuclear energy were in line with EU law.