The push for or against nuclear power has taken on a new dimension since the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan earlier this year. The German government decision to go it alone, without nuclear power, is influencing the debate in Europe. These were some parameters of the debate last night at the Common Sense Society event that was held at the Ybl Palota in Budapest.
The organizers were kind enough to invite me to debate the merits of nuclear power in Europe. The discussion was moderated by András Deák (Center for EU Enlargement Studies), while Ada Ámon (Energiaklub) took the opposing side of why nuclear power is not needed in Europe. I argued for nuclear power and why it is central for reducing carbon emissions. However, it needs to be stated that I’m not an expert on nuclear power. But I feel strongly enough and informed enough, as I told the organizers, that I can explain why we need nuclear power to keep climate change in check. I believe I made a coherent case for it last night – or at least within the 7 minutes alloted and in the follow up questions. I thought I would share my bare bone notes here.
My argument was based on the following:
1. Nuclear power is needed because of the failure of society and politicians to advance a more green agenda, with clean technology, earlier and fast enough.
2. Europe and the world need nuclear power for two reasons, because it admits zero greenhouse gases and it is a proven technology
My argument is based on T and T: Time and Technology.
- We are almost out of Time
- Green Technology needs to be widely deployed
However, there are strong time and technological limits that must be dealt with. The most pressing limit, is the rise in global temperatures due to CO2 emissions. This is particularly scary, when we consider the following study. There is now a greater than 50% chance that global temperatures will exceed 3°C increase by 2100. This is based on a study that says, pledges by countries are not sufficient to keep global temperature rises below the 2°C agreed in the Copenhagen Accord. Therefore TIME is of the essence.
Since time is of the essence we need to consider the evolutionary timeline of energy systems laid out by the United States Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. “Look how long it took to make the transition from wood to coal, coal to oil and gas: 50-60 years. We cannot make this transition in another 50 or 60 years. It will be too late for the climate” (Thompson 2010). Therefore, there is an urgency to transition to a new energy system. Only through a concerted effort, like in Germany, where there is a strong political and social agreement, that the high short-term price will be paid to transition to an energy system without nuclear power.
This transition in Germany is particularly important. (this point comes out of the discussion after the debate, but is very important). Germany is now ready to finance the shut-down of viable nuclear power plants. The ratepayers and the taxpayers of Germany will have to pay an extra amount to the owners of these facilities NOT to use them. This is a substantial development, as it indicates the importance of the transition. This is what occurred in the United States when they moved from a monopolistic to a ‘competitive’ electricity market. The sunk costs that had accrued under the monopolistic system, were taken over by states, in order to foster a more competitive electricity market, under the belief that electricity prices would be lowered. This is an important political and financial decision that does represent a systemic transformation in the dominant energy regime.
Time and Technology:
We need to consider the GLOBAL SCALE of climate change:
- Downsides: Nuclear waste remains with us for 100,000 years. Finland is building a storage facility to last for 100,000 years.
- Climate change caused by human activity, releasing CO2, remains with us for 100,000 years. If we don’t act within the next few years we will not be able to keep global temperatures low and even worse cataclysmic events will occur. How many people does severe weather kill each year – as a result of climate change? What will be the result of drought on global food supplies? (for a great discussion on this 100,000 year timeline listen to this podcast, with Curt Stager).
We also need to consider the LOCAL SCALE impact of nuclear power:
- Fucushima has demonstrated the worst case scenarios of total meltdown of three reactors. The result has been a minimal environmental impact. No doubt very bad for the locals but on a global scale, much much less compared to the impact of global warming and the carbon and toxic emissions from coal power plants.
- Third generation nuclear power is safer, less wasteful and is more efficient
- Passive safety features. European regulators will require core catchers. A containment vessel around the main containment vessel.
- Nuclear power is the outcome of the pursuit for a more sustainable and independent energy system from the 1960s and 1970s.
It is important to remember that energy systems are local. Local opinions and the governance systems matter – they choose the path for technology that will be producing zero carbon emissions by 2050. WE MUST DEVELOP MORE NON-CARBON BASED ENERGY SOURCES NOW. NUCLEAR GETS US TO WHERE WE NEED TO BE WITHIN THE TIMEFRAME. Not just because it is clean, but because it works.
The EU’s Second Strategic Energy Review, calls for decarbonizing Europe’s electricity system by 2050. How can we get there? Nuclear power is a product of past efforts to create a more sustainable and clean energy system. It was a concerted goal that had political, social and agreement with industry. We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, nuclear power is needed.
The present energy system is based on a concerted government, economic and social regime. Focused over years, decades, to build a particular system. It is these factors that will shape whether we need to use nuclear power to meet our future energy demands. It would be great not to use nuclear power, but is that realistic? At least for the next 100 years? If gas is the present bridge fuel for another 20 or 30 years, then nuclear – and third generation nuclear is the bridge fuel for the next 60 to 100 years. The focus is on carbon reduction, AND QUICKLY. If we don’t do that then the planet for the next 100,000 years will be broadly impacted. Fukushima and Chernobyl show us the devastating localized impact of nuclear power accidents. We need to consider not just the developed economies of Europe, but the planet as a whole and the impact that our demand for energy has on the planet. If society, politicians and the economic sacrifices can build a zero carbon energy system without nuclear power – great, but so far outside of Germany there is not this widespread support. Six European countries overwhelming rely on nuclear power as their main source for power. Forcing them to develop a new energy system, along with other countries that use nuclear power too, will require a very long lead time. 50 or 60 years, we do not have that long. Nuclear power, because it is the product of a previous energy regime, can be used as a key power source to transition the planet to the next clean energy system.