2000.10.02 23:25 2000.10.02 23:25 | Energy & Climate Change

Are we gonna nuke the climate?!

Peer de Rijk
WISE Amsterdam


The nuclear industry is in terminal decline. Very poor economics, an appalling safety record, mounting piles of radioactive waste, the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation has eroded public confidence and seen orders for new plants dry up. One of the industry's last hopes is exploiting global concern over climate change by promoting itself as a carbon-free energy technology. The nuclear industry, supported by  governments of, amongst others, the United States, France, the UK, South-Korea and Japan is hoping to be made eligible for the Kyoto - so called flexible- mechanisms. In this the industry would gain access to a potentially significant new source of financing and public credibility. The decision on whether nukes are eligible for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) will be taken in November, in Den Haag - but of course the decision will be cooked in the months before.

According to the ones following the negotiations and debates from the inside the decision on the rules and structure of the Clean Development Mechanism is one of the most important and political tense issues at stake in Den Haag. The CDM is intended to allow industrialised countries to offset their greenhouse gas reductions targets by funding projects in developing countries that lead to reduced emissions. But what kind of technologies and practices are acceptable?  Of course it's already highly questionable that the most  polluting countries push for the opportunity to take cheap, simple action in these countries so that they do not have to change life-style and economics at home.  As the Dutch government, host of the COP- 6,  says: reducing the emission of one tonne of CO2 in the  Netherlands costs about 20 dollars, doing the same in Africa costs us  only 1-3 dollars. "And, hey, the package deal benefits both; the people in Africa (or wherever in the south) will receive state-of-the-art technology which will help to combat poverty...".

NGOs and people's movements all over the globe are fighting against not only the structure of the flexible mechanisms themselves but at least trying to keep the Clean Development Mechanism clean, safe and sound.

Inclusion - or exclusion of nukes in the CDM is clearly one, if not the most, controversial issue under negotiation in Den Haag. Countries with both a large nuclear industry and problems in finding ways to reduce their emissions domestically are of course the pushers:  Canada, the United States, Japan, France and the United  Kingdom. They are supported by countries willing to follow the nuclear path: China, India, but also smaller countries as Vietnam and Thailand. Developing countries are key to the nuclear industry future but until now the main barrier is economic. The high capital costs of a new reactor and the long repayment period are significant deterrents. But if CDM credits were factored in, this could change. For example, a 700- Mw coal fired power station emits about 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year. If a nuclear power station was build instead it could be claimed that it offsets this amount of CO2. The receiving country (China) gets the nuclear power station for very little money, the builder of the power station (AECL, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.) gets paid by the donor government (Canada) which gets the credits by claiming the reduction of 4.5 million tonnes of carbon per annum.

China's nuclear ambitions graphically demonstrate the potential threat of a CDM which includes nukes. The Beijing government literally states that it is waiting to see if it will get the benefits of a pro-nuclear CDM before it finalises a decision on how many additional nuclear power stations it will build. Vietnam is hoping for a nuke-friendly CDM - they will then finally just for almost nothing get a nuclear power station they always wanted from  the Russians but never got.

Of course India wants it - with a booming demand for electricity, a very poor domestic nuclear industry and a highly ambitious nuclear weapons programme the cynical approach of western governments having problems with sound climate-policy give hope to India.

Inclusion of nukes in CDM-listings of acceptable projects will throw the whole struggle against nukes back into the situation where we were 25 years ago. On the other hand, if we manage to block this attempt there is little hope for a brilliant future for the nuclear believers. Arguments against nukes as a tool in the struggle against climate change are easy to draw:

- Nuclear power is dangerous.  The chance that an accident happens has gone down in the past years (well...for the few new stations...) but the results of an accident are devastating. And even during 'normal operation' a nuclear power plant pollutes and kills while emitting low levels of radiation.

- The nuclear fuel cycle (uranium mining, transports, extraction of usable uranium, transports, enrichment, transports, fabrication of fuelrods, transports, nuclear power station, transports, reprocessing, transports, waste storage/fabrication of new fuel rods, transports) destroys nature, kills people's livelihoods, culture and hope for a better future, contaminates thousands of people and costs unimaginable amounts of money.

- There is no country in this world that has found an acceptable (in scientific, technical and political meaning) solution for its radioactive waste. Waste that has to be taken care of for thousands of years to come. We have spent billions of dollars on finding a way of getting rid of it, we have tried to shoot it to the sun, we have dumped it into the sea, we have tried to bury it under the sea, we are trying to export it to other countries , we try to solve the problem by bringing in new classification systems (if you don't call it nuclear waste anymore you can much more easily dispose....) but it will be there - for our children's children.

- Although a nuclear power station does not itself emit CO2 the production of nuclear energy necessarily includes ore mining, enrichment, transport etc. For all these steps the energy used almost all comes from fossil fuels. Taking into account the whole life-cycle the conclusion is clear: nuclear is anything but carbon-free.

So, where does nuclear stand on its CO2-emission-factor? Depending on source there is a whole range of figures; from 34 grams/kWh to 230 grams/kWh.  While compared with coal, oil or gas, nuclear power has a favourable co2-emission-factor, it comes off much worse when compared to the real solutions such as energy saving, co-generation or renewables.

Cost efficiency is another important consideration in the discussion. The more CO2 avoided for each spent dollar the higher the efficiency.  In practice it's quite hard to get reliable figures on the cost-efficiency of nukes (as for instance there is quite some subsidies being given which is not reflected in the per/kWh-price). While omitting at least costs for necessary improvements for safety and nuclear waste disposal it ranges between 0.05 and 0.07 $/kWh. Assessments offering an overview of production costs for different alternative electricity systems clearly show that assertions of low costs for nuclear power are no longer valid. The main alternative energy systems will be even more favourable if a more realistic upper limit cost were to be applied to nuclear energy production. CO2 abatement costs can be calculated as the ratio between the quantity of abated CO2-emission and the cost difference between this and a reference option (mostly taken is the common coal-fired station).  Here, gas-fired stations, electricity savings and renewable energy show far more cost efficiency than expansion of nuclear power. Even if the optimistic low range figure for nuclear CO2 abatement costs are taken and compared with an 'ecology mix' (co-generation and renewable energy carriers) then this mix offers CO2- abatement costs three to four times better than for nuclear power: $2.94 per tonne CO2 (ecology mix) versus $8.82-11.76 per tonne CO2  (nukes) abatement.

- If the CDM supports nuclear power it will inevitably be contributing to the threat of nuclear proliferation. All nuclear power plants produce  weapons-usable plutonium.  A sphere of plutonium smaller than a tennisball can be used to make a weapon that can kill many  thousands of people. Two of the countries lobbying most aggressively for CDM credits for nuclear projects are China and India, both of whom have active nuclear    weapons programs.

- Nuclear credits will drain resources from non-nuclear developing countries. States in the Pacific, Africa and Latin-Americas are concerned that high-capital CDM-projects (which nuclear will be anyway) will mirror current or future investment flows and be biased towards high-growth countries like China, S.Korea and India. They are seeking an assurance that the CDM will be structured to ensure an equitable distribution of resources among all developing countries.

- Allowing nukes into the CDM would help legitimise a dying industry  which has no other arguments left.

Luckily, we do have friends among the negotiating countries. Just very recently the European Union has taken a position that effectively excludes nukes from the CDM with the following text:

"COP-6 should adopt a positive list of safe, environmentally sound eligible projects based on renewable energy sources, energy efficiency improvements and demand side management in the fields of energy and transport".
But this agreement only goes until the protocol's first review meeting after its ratification. A push to explicitly exclude nuclear, led by Ireland and supported by at least ten other member states, was frustrated by resistance from France, the UK and...Finland (planning to build a new nuclear power station, the country's fifth)

But even with this small success the road to definite victory is long. It needs huge pressure on negotiators, mass public awareness to raise pressure, we have to make clear that nukes will never be accepted and will always lead to political turmoil, we will have to convince possible accepting countries that nukes are not the solutions to their problems, that, in the end, they will be paying the costs, will be the ones having to deal with the waste, radiation, accidents et cetera.

WISE, World Information Service on Energy, based in Amsterdam but  with offices in 13 countries, will, together with all other NGOs willing to join, do as much as we can to block them from nuking the climate. Besides all kinds of material that will be released in October/November, media-work and support of lobbyists, WISE is planning to organise some direct actions; both in Lyon (France, September) where another preparation conference is taking place and in the Netherlands itself.

Although not a breath-taking action it's worthwhile to endorse the petition (http://www.antenna.nl/wise/cop6/, in different languages) against nukes in the CDM we launched in April of this year. Our goal is to have 1000 NGOs from all over the globe supporting the petition .The petition and signatories will play their role in the actions in the autumn.


Contact us if you want to be involved with any of our actions!

Peer de Rijk
WISE Amsterdam
Po Box 59636
1040 LC Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Pho : + 31 20 6126368
Fax : + 31 20 6892179
Mob : + 31 06 20 000 626
Email :
wiseamster@antenna.nl
WWW :
http://www.antenna.nl/wise

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