Why the 'right to decide on the national energy mix' doesn't help national mix issues in reality, or why European leaders should support ambitious and binding EU wide and national targets for renewables and efficiency.

The Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant. 09/05/2012 © Tomas Halasz / Greenpeace

Too often it is in human nature to hold on to old recipes that haven't worked in the past, similar to a fly that bangs against a closed window for hours to get outside, but doesn't. Sadly the same seems to be true for a number of European Environment and Energy Ministers who discussed the Commission's recent proposal  for the EU's 2030 climate and energy framework over the last two days.

There are reasons to doubt that their input given to Heads of government in view of the EU Summit discussions on 20 & 21 March will provide the basis for the needed radical energy system transformation in the coming decades. The one that will break Europe's chains to a highly polluting, overly expensive and increasingly risky energy system.

Or to say it in other words, to ensure quick agreement on the ambitious and binding targets for both the EU and national level for renewable energy and energy efficiency – the two required vectors to drive greenhouse gas reduction down while advancing on the energy system modernisation and decrease the dependency on expensive and energy imports. Of course such a transformation doesn't fall from the sky. It needs a clear direction given by politicians, business and citizens, sufficient time and resources, planning and policy design to allow a progressive and most cost efficient process. However, what too many of these Ministers seem to propose is to delay this decision and go on with just the repackaged same old stuff, wrapped away under unclear policy language.

The so-called flexibility and the 'national right to decide on national energy mixes' as written down in the EU Treaties is held forward by some Ministers to keep the EU from making the needed decisions to prepare our future, from putting the deep ranging energy system transformation on track.

But what does the right to decide on national energy mixes actually mean? Part of the problem here is the role of nuclear power in the energy mix. New build power plants have proven not to be an economic viable option – the showcases in Flamanville and Olkiluoto have been demonstrating this extensively over the last decade. And more recent the UK plans for channelling huge amounts of  taxpayer money over the next 35 years into another such attempt for a new build nuclear power plant in Hinkley Point C are today much as uncertain politically as economically.  There is also the existing nuclear park in the EU; in which reactors' capital costs are in most cases paid off, and the power plants are so-to-say cash-cows that are happily milked by its operators.

However, the nuclear power plant park is ageing – out of 151 reactors in Europe, 66 are more than 30 years old, 25 more than 35 years, and 7 even more then 40 years, and the majority is threatening to overshoot their technical design life-time. It will be not a big surprise that nuclear power plant operators are already fiercely lobbying their governments to obtain lifetime extensions to secure this welcome income flow for some further decades, instead of having to cash out for decommissioning and waste disposal. Today's published studies that were commissioned by Greenpeace show that the increasing age of the reactors also increases the risks for a nuclear incident and significant economic and environmental damage. For citizens in the own but also in the neighbouring countries.

Betting on nuclear power plants life-time extension would be a multiple mistake for the European Union.

First of all it would catapult European citizens into a new era of risk, in the name of the benefits of a handful of economic actors and their political backers, and without having properly informed citizens but also neighbouring countries.

Then it would be a waste of money. The economics of life time extension don't work properly out either. In the US we see that in spite of receiving permission for life-time extension, necessary upgrading was too costly for five reactors last year. And in Europe, operators and politicians try to prevent any upgrading needed to bring reactors on the standards of today's best available technology – for exactly these economic reasons. A report published last week by Greenpeace France concluded 4 Billion Euro would be needed per reactor to come near to that level. That money could much more efficiently be spent in clean and safe energy technologies.

Of course this requires that alternative energy sources are in place when the demand is there. There is no reason to use fossil fuels impairing the climate to replace risky old reactors. Nor does there need to be an issue with security of supply in Europe. Energy efficiency and savings solutions and a multitude of renewable energy technologies exist and can be rolled in fast, reliably and affordable. The right interconnections and the internal market offer more than enough possibilities to prevent any security of supply issues. But it needs sincere support on European level.

The European leaders will discuss our energy future not too far after the third anniversary of the Fukushima catastrophe. If they don't shed the shackles to their big energy companies, we will be facing more Fukushimas with our ageing nuclear fleet. The last thing you want if you face a climate crisis as we do now, is being tied in by a nuclear accident. It's time to set the switches right: 55% greenhouse gas reductions in 2030, a binding minimum of 45% renewables and 40% efficiency increase. Nuclear power can't help to deliver these targets.

Jan Haverkamp is Greenpeace expert consultant on nuclear energy and energy policy and based in Gdansk, Poland, his post is based on a Greenpeace report on Nuclear power plant ageing.