Climate change and nuclear power
Climate change: a lifeline for nuclear power?
In recent years the balance of evidence has confirmed that our planet is becoming warmer due to the emission of greenhouse gases by human activities. Approximately half of these greenhouse gases are emitted by the energy sector. In order to avert catastrophic climate change we urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the energy demands of the world's population are still growing at an alarming rate. The World Energy Outlook estimates that global energy use will have increased by 67% in 2030 compared to levels in 2000 (IEA, 2002), and it is generally accepted that world energy demand will double by 2050 (WNA, 2004a). How to satisfy these energy demands while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one of the most pressing questions of our time.
The nuclear power industry is engaged in a huge PR campaign to convince the public and decision-makers that nuclear power is the answer to the climate change problem. By promoting itself as the saviour of the environment the failing industry hopes to give itself a new lease of life. However, their arguments are based on a number of myths, namely that:
When nuclear power was first introduced to the world in the middle of the twentieth century, it was promoted as a cheap and limitless energy source that could satisfy the world's growing energy needs.
In 1954 Lewis Strauss, at that time the head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, promised that nuclear power plants would provide electricity "too cheap to meter".
In 1974, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) forecast that there would be up to 4,450 reactors of 1,000 Megawatt (MW) in operation in the world by the year 2000. Uranium would rapidly become scarce but plutonium-fuelled fast breeder reactors would provide endless amounts of cheap electricity (WWF, 2000).
The situation today is a far cry from these early predictions. At present there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation around the world: less than 10% the number predicted by the IAEA thirty years ago (Scheer, 2004). These reactors provide approximately 16% of the world's electricity (Slingerland et al, 2004), and just 2.5% of the world's formal energy demand (WWF, 2000; Hodgson & Maignac, 2001).
At the end of 2002 only 32 reactors were listed as being under construction (Slingerland et al, 2004). A large number of these have been officially listed as "under construction" for over 15 years and will probably never be completed. (Atom's Amok, 2004). In the United States, there has not been a successful reactor order in more than 30 years. The last one ordered was the Palo Verde reactor, in October 1973.
Climate change is widely acknowledged as being one of the most pressing issues for the global community. In 2001 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its most recent overview report on the issue. This report stressed that there is ever more convincing evidence to suggest that most of the warming of the earth must be directly attributed to human activities, namely the emission of greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) for energy production.
Greenhouse gases are naturally found in the atmosphere and trap part of the sun's heat in the lower atmosphere. This process keeps our planet warm and makes life on earth possible. If the atmosphere were devoid of these gases the average global temperature would be approximately 33°C lower than it is today (Barry and Chorley, 1992). However, due to human activities, the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing unnaturally. This results in the trapping of too much heat, leading to a rise in global temperature.
Rising temperatures and sea-levels
Furthermore, the IPCC report suggests that the temperature rise of the 20th century is very likely the cause of the detected sea-level rise over that period (IPCC, 2001a). The warming up of the seas leads to an increase in the water volume, which makes the sea level rise. What are the effects of climate change?
The history of the earth has known huge variations in average global temperatures. However, the current warming is taking place at a pace unseen for millions of years. According to the most recent findings of the IPCC, global temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8°C, and sea levels by 9 to 88 cm by 2100, compared to 2000 levels (IPCC, 2001b). Whilst such a temperature rise of a few degrees may not sound particularly alarming, it should be noted that the average temperature difference between the coldest part of the last major ice-age and the present is only about 5°C (Houghton, 1994). The problem is that natural and human systems may not be able to adapt to such a pace of warming.
These changes in climate affect many aspects of the environment and society, including human health, ecosystems, agriculture and water supplies, local and global economies, sea levels and extreme weather events. Whilst some positive effects are expected (e.g. longer agricultural growing seasons in some mid-latitude countries), the negative effects will outweigh the positive even with small temperature rises. The more the temperature rises, the more negative the effects will be (IPCC, 2001b; Greenpeace, 2001).
In Europe some of the effects are already being felt. A sea-level rise of 0.8 to 3.0 mm per year over the last century is seriously felt in water management and also influences the fresh water levels. And the increase of extreme weather events (long periods of drought, extreme rains) over the last 30 years is increasingly causing economic damage e.g. in agriculture (EEA, 2004a; VROM, 2004).
Climate change agreements
In 1992 the first major international agreement on climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was adopted. The UNFCCC requires that atmospheric CO2 concentrations be stabilised at a level that prevents dangerous climate change. Furthermore, this should be achieved quickly enough to allow ecosystems to adapt in a natural way, food production to continue unharmed and economies to develop sustainably. However, the convention lacked enforcement measures and specific commitments (NEA, 2002).
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, built on the commitments made in the UNFCCC but went a serious step further. The protocol established concrete emissions targets for most developed countries, requiring them to reduce their collective emissions of the six most important greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFK, PFK and SF6) by at least 5.2% by 2008-2012, as compared to 1990 levels. The Kyoto Protocol defines three flexible mechanisms ("flex mechs") that can be used by developed countries to assist them in meeting their emissions targets: the clean development mechanism (CDM), joint implementation (JI) and emissions trading (NEA, 2002). With these mechanisms countries and companies can buy emission rights. The first two mechanisms allow the (co-) financing of emission saving investments. Under the CDM investments are made in countries with no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol (development countries). Under JI investments are made in countries with an obligation under the Kyoto Protocol that have 'spare' emission space (in practice Eastern European countries and Russia). A system for trade in CO2 emissions is at present developing in the European Union.
With the signature of Russia's president Putin the Kyoto Protocol has become legally binding. Although the United Stated and Australia have not signed the Kyoto Protocol, the Protocol must be considered a major step towards global climate policy.
Many in the nuclear industry have seen climate change as a 'lever' by which to revitalise the fortunes of nuclear power (IEA, 1998). Some people have described nuclear power as being "environmentally indispensable" (Ritch III, 2002), or "by far the most effective way to reduce CO2 emissions" (Hodgson & Maignac, 2001, p. 22). They assume that nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases and is low cost (NEA, 2001).
At present nuclear power is not included in the 'flex mechs' of the Kyoto Protocol. However these mechanisms, especially the CDM, are seen by the nuclear industry as an opportunity to expand by gaining government grants to subsidise nuclear plants in developing countries (Groenlinks, 2000). Between now and the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Treaty (2008-2012), the industry will be lobbying hard to get nuclear power included in all three of the "flex mechs" after 2012 (NEA, 2002).
Growing concerns about climate change seem to make the nuclear energy option appear more attractive to some high level officials. Some countries already see a new commitment period as another chance to make carbon finance available to fund nuclear power. In October 2004, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (MITI) published a report on future climate actions that included a recommendation to make nuclear power eligible for the CDM(METI, 2004). In November 2004 the head of the Italian Climate Change office called for the use of nuclear power in the CDM to be "look[ed] at" (Point Carbon, 2004).
In 2002, the then EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin stated that nuclear energy could greatly contribute to meeting Kyoto Protocol requirements. In the same year the UK government chief scientific advisor, Prof. D. King, argued strongly that the UK must build new nuclear power stations and that the radioactive waste problem is "a legacy of the past" (N-Base, 2002). Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that the UK has not ruled out nuclear power as a means of fighting climate change (WNA, 2004b).
Friends of the Earth Vlaanderen & Brussel (voorheen Voor Moeder Aarde) is lid van Friends of the Earth International