EC's 'clean planet' director highlights nuclear research

04 February 2021

With 10 research and innovation actions linked to nuclear, the Strategic Energy Technology Plan is "really stimulating new partnerships" across the 18 SET countries that are participating in them, Rosalinde van der Vlies, 'clean planet' director at the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission, said this week. Speaking in the plenary session of SNETP Forum 2021, she said all EU Member States have "very high standards" in safety, radiation protection and security.

Rosalinde van der Vlies, 'clean planet' director at DG-RTD

The Commission launched the SET Plan in 2007 to accelerate the development and deployment of cost-effective low-carbon technologies. It helps to promote cooperation among EU countries, companies and research institutions.

The European nuclear industry received a boost on 18 December last year, she said, when Member State ambassadors reached a political agreement on the proposed regulation establishing the research and training programme of the European Atomic Energy Community for the period 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2025. The aim of this regulation is to pursue nuclear research and training activities with an emphasis on the continuous improvement of nuclear safety, security and radiation protection, as well as to complement the achievement of Horizon Europe’s objectives.

Optimal mix

Referring to the Commission's ambition for the EU to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, van der Vlies stressed that each EU Member State is free to choose its "optimal energy mix" in order to meet that goal. Member States are "quite divergent in their views" on whether or not to include nuclear, she said.

"What is very interesting is to look at the national energy and climate plans that Member States adopted. These are their national roadmaps to meet the 2030 targets. You can see that 10 Member States have clearly stated that they want to include nuclear as part of their energy mix in meeting their 2030 targets, and six Member States want to set up small-scale nuclear technologies and link those to [other] energy technologies," she said.

"The divergence in the views of the Member States culminated at the end of last year in a Christmas present -the Commission's proposal for a Euratom research and training programme for 2021-2025. It's a big priority for me and my colleagues to work on the programme for 2021-2022. We launched a stakeholder consultation on this at the beginning of the year, and we had 350 stakeholders reply. We were very pleased with the high quality input, in particular on safety and the long-term operation of current plants, and also on the management of spent nuclear fuel and waste, and decommissioning activities. This input will be important for work on research and training in the nuclear area in the Euratom work programme."

A "novelty" of the Euratom programme is the objective to foster cross-sector innovation, she said, particularly for the non-power applications of nuclear energy, including medical uses, but also industrial uses, such as artificial intelligence and space research.

The programme will complement Horizon Europe, using the same instruments and rules for participation, she noted, and it will also support the mobility of nuclear researchers in the framework of Horizon Europe's Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

The total funding for the implementation of the new Euratom programme for the period from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2025 is EUR1.38 billion (USD1.7 billion) -  EUR583 million for indirect actions in fusion research and development; EUR266 million for indirect actions in nuclear fission, safety and radiation protection; and EUR532 million for direct actions undertaken by the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Green Deal

Despite the benefits of nuclear power as a low-carbon and reliable source of electricity, the industry is in limbo regarding the EU taxonomy on sustainable finance because nuclear energy is so far excluded from the list of sustainable economic activities. European nuclear industry group Foratom argues that this ought to be reviewed as it contradicts EU climate policy.

In September last year, the Commission mandated the JRC to undertake a thorough assessment of nuclear energy sustainability. The JRC’s report was expected this month, but has been delayed. It is scheduled to be finalised by June.

Van der Vlies noted that the JRC's report will be discussed with Member State experts before its final adoption. "But this report will then be the basis for the decision on the taxonomy. This is definitely something I think should be monitored closely in the coming months," she said.

The European Green Deal - the Commission's policy initiatives to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 - is the "growth strategy for Europe", she stressed.

"I've been working in the environment field for many years and this is a message that we tried to pass 10 years ago. The sustainability issue and the competiveness issue really go hand-in-hand. With the European Green Deal, for the first time the European Commission has explicitly said that the sustainability strategy is also our growth strategy and contributing to our competitiveness.

"We have a very clear and long term perspective - climate neutrality by 2050 - and very clear reduction targets - 55% (that is currently being discussed by the EU Member States) by 2030. Obviously this very clear strategy requires also very strong investments. The European Green Deal says that we need to invest over EUR1 trillion within the next 10 years and of course a significant part of this investment will need to be in research and innovation."

Van der Vlies also talked about the EU Hydrogen Strategy, adopted in July last year, which states that between 2020 and 2024 the Commission will support the installation of at least 6 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers in the EU, and the production of up to 1 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen. From 2025 to 2030, there needs to be at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and the production of up to 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU. From 2030 to 2050, renewable hydrogen technologies should reach maturity and be deployed at large scale across all hard-to-decarbonise sectors, it says.

Paula Abreu Marques, head of unit for renewables and CCS policy at the European Commission's energy directorate, told the European Parliament on 16 November that the Commission will consider hydrogen produced from nuclear power as "low-carbon". French MEP Joëlle Mélin was quoted as saying by Euractiv that he was surprised hydrogen from nuclear energy was not mentioned in the strategy.

Van der Vlies told the SNETP forum: "The strategy reflects the Commission's longer term priority to have clean and renewable hydrogen, produced mainly from wind and solar applications. However, in the short and medium term, other forms of low-carbon hydrogen are absolutely needed to rapidly reduce the emissions from the existing hydrogen production, and to support the development of a viable market at a significant scale. So this is a very clear strategy and a very important one that will also guide our policy decisions in the coming months and years."


She highlighted the role of SNETP, the host of the conference.

SNEPT - Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology - was established in September 2007 as a research, development and innovation platform to support and promote the safe, reliable and efficient operation of Generation II, III and IV civil nuclear systems. Since May 2019, the Brussels, Belgium-based organisation has been operating as an international non-profit association under Belgian law pursuing networking and scientific goals.

"SNETP provides a strong platform bringing research and innovation efforts together by consistently making a very strong contribution in pursuing excellence in nuclear resource and also in facilitating international collaboration in nuclear science," she said.

"We are really counting on your continuous expertise, collaboration and enthusiasm to help us define the right priorities in nuclear research and training activities that will be forthcoming, and to make sure that we can make a strong contribution to the strategic objectives of the Commission, not only in the area of the European Green Deal, but also for global health."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News