Radioactive warning signs at a Czech processing plant storage facility where 'yellowcake' uranium ore is processed. Photo: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
#COP21: don't nuke the climate!
Peer de Rijk
22nd August 2015
Nuclear energy is a failed technology that's never been safe, affordable or effective at reducing carbon emissions, writes Peer de Rijk. But that won't stop the world's nuclear lobbyists from thronging to COP21 in Paris determined to secure a place for nuclear power among the 'solutions' to climate change. We must make sure they fail.
Nuclear power and fossil fuels both form the backbone of a rigid, centralized energy system which inherently encourages wastefulness and hinders the rapid expansion of renewable energy.
Confronted with the decline in nuclear power worldwide, nuclear industry leaders and their political and media allies are trying to impose the idea that this technology is an appropriate and indispensable solution to fight climate change.
But what they forget is that fight against climate change is a race against time. To maintain a small margin of 'climate safety', emissions worldwide should reach their peak within the next 5 years before declining drastically.
And according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), greenhouse gas emissions could only be reduced by 9% even if one new nuclear reactor was completed every week for the next 15 years!
The industrial and financial capacity necessary for such drastic nuclear growth, producing over 750 new reactors, is plainly lacking, rendering it impossible.
Indeed nuclear power is an increasingly marginal source of energy, and one that's plainly in decline. Worldwide, nuclear provides hardly 2% of total energy consumption. This amounts to only 10.8% of world electricity production, in sharp decline since the record 17.6% reached in 1996.
Nuclear energy will continue to decline, as the reactors currently under construction are too few to replace the many ageing reactors that will close within the next decades.
Even China, which has the largest number of reactors under construction, produces more energy from wind turbines than from nuclear power since 2012. Nuclear energy amounts to less than 3% of the energy consumed in the country.
Nuclear energy is too expensive
Investors are turning their backs on nuclear power. According to the IEA, from 2000 to 2013, 57% of investments in new electricity generation capacities have been in renewables, and only 3% in nuclear. Furthermore, many projects of new reactors have been dropped over the past few years.
The costs of nuclear energy keeps increasing. In France, the EPR nuclear reactor is now bound to cost three times more than initially announced. Furthermore, some 250 billion euros would have to be squandered to patch up the ageing reactors to prolong their operations. A pure waste of money : the whole fleet would have to be replaced within the next 10 or 20 years !
Unlike nuclear energy, the cost of renewables keeps falling. Electricity from on-shore wind is already much (30 to 50%) cheaper to produce than that of the future EPR or the current French reactors once they will be revamped.
Nor is nuclear by any means a 'zero-carbon' energy source. The mining and enrichment of uranium; the manufacturing, transport and reprocessing of nuclear fuel rods and waste; the building and dismantling of the reactors. At every step, nuclear energy produces greenhouse gases.
If we take into account the whole life cycles, nuclear uses much more water than wind or photovoltaic per kWh. Hot summers or climatic events can disrupt the operation of nuclear power plants: one quarter of France's nuclear reactors had to be shut down or operated at reduced capacity in the hot summer of 2003.
Even when shut down, a constant supply of electricity is required to cool down the reactors, so they will not undergo a core melt.
Radioactivity and nuclear waste: more and more pollution
From uranium mines to nuclear waste, including radioactive and chemical pollution from nuclear reactors, every phase of the nuclear cycle brings about pollution.
300,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel have already been accumulated worldwide. These highly radioactive nuclear wastes will remain dangerous for over hundreds of thousands of years. The very few existing burial sites (Asse in Germany and WIPP in the United States) have turned into incredible fiascos that already contaminate the environment.
Another problem is that nuclear accidents do happen - and will become more likely, the more reactors there are. The French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Security (IRSN) now states that "elected officials must be prepared for a nuclear accident", and that a major accident would be an "unmanageable European catastrophe" that would cost up to €760 billion.
More nuclear power means more radioactive materials that may be diverted. By dispersing them with conventional explosives, a terrorist attack can contaminate a city.
Further, no barrier exists between the civilian and military uses of nuclear materials: any nation possessing nuclear reactors can develop an atomic bomb ... and use it.
Saving energy: the most efficient, the least expensive
Enormous potential for saving energy exists in every sector: housing, construction, industry, transport, information technology, household appliances, etc.
The IEA believes that 50% of reductions in GHG emissions to be achieved by 2020 should come from efficiency measures. This could avoid the equivalent of the current emissions from Russia, the fifth largest GHG emitter in the world.
Conserving energy, which is less expensive than producing it, brings about numerous advantages: reduced energy expenses, job creation, etc. Thus, meeting its objective of saving 20% of energy by 2020, the European Union would save €200 billion per year.
Germany shows the way to energy transition
Nuclear power and fossil fuels both form the backbone of a rigid, centralized energy system which inherently encourages wastefulness and hinders the rapid expansion of renewable energy. We must urgently break out of the stranglehold of these energies from the past.
Thanks to sustained institutional support, the energy transition will enable Germany to close all its nuclear plants by 2022, while almost consistently reducing its GHG emissions for the past 25 years. The country aims to reduce its emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990.
In only ten years' time, the share of electricity from renewables has increased from 9% to 26% on a yearly average, sometimes exceeding 50% on sunny or windy days.
In 2014, electricity produced in Germany from coal dropped by 6% compared to 2013, and the country's GHG emissions by 4.3%, while total fossil fuel consumption reached its lowest level in 35 years.
Germany's coal industry remains powerful and much bigger than it ought to be - but this is mainly the result of the low carbon price in the EU's emission trading scheme, which makes it cheaper to burn coal than more expensive, lower-carbon gas. In any case, after scrapping nuclear power, Germany intends to scrap coal.
In Paris, at COP21, we have to make sure nuclear is not accepted as part of the solution to combat climate change.
Petition for organizations: 'Don't nuke the climate - COP21!'
Join our campaign to keep nuclear power out of COP21.
Peer de Rijk is director of WISE International, the World Information Service on Energy.
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