Nuclear's Fate Still Uncertain After Paris Talks

Nuclear's Fate Still Uncertain After Paris Talks

You would think after convening in Paris for a week that the world’s leaders could have reached some sort of consensus about whether nuclear would be part of the climate future. But the issue now seems as murky as ever.

Since the accord amounted to little more than an agreement to agree, it is not surprising that there were no lightning bolts carving out a clear path for nuclear. Each of the countries is free to choose its own route to lowering carbon emissions and it appears now that the situation will be the same as before COP21 (the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties) – some will go with nuclear, some won’t.

Nuclear could hardly have gotten a better introduction than from James Hansen, often called “The Father of Climate Change.” Hansen, then the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, introduced Congress to global warming on a hot week in July 1989. Congressional staffers helped by closing all the windows in the hearing room and turning off the air conditioner so that Congressmen had to sweat through Hansen’s performance. But his presentation made its mark. The earth was growing hotter and human beings were responsible. As it happened, Hansen’s speech kicked off a decade when the whole globe grew noticeably hotter.

Hansen has long been a supporter of nuclear power but kept it to himself because he didn’t want to rattle his supporters. But two years ago he came out of the closet and become a full-fledged supporter of nuclear power. “It’s absolutely one-hundred-percent certain that we’ve got a very dangerous situation,” he told the opening session of COOP21. “And for us to say, `Oh, we’re not going to use all the tools that we have to solve the situation’ is crazy. We have to use all the things that we have at our disposal and clearly nuclear power, next generation nuclear power especially, has tremendous potential to be a big part of the solution.”

After that opening salvo, however, nuclear didn’t get much mention for the rest of the conference. Most notable was the delinquency of France, the host country, which has developed nuclear much further than anyone else. France gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear and recycles its spent fuel so that all of its unusable material from 40 years of 75 percent nuclear is buried beneath the floor of one room at Le Havre. 

Yet as Joseph Bamat, special correspondent to the conference, wrote in COP21: 

The huge French pavilion that was built for the COP 21 climate conference includes over a dozen spacious stands showcasing France's leadership in various fields of science, technology, education and ecology. But nowhere does the pavilion mention nuclear energy, completely dismissing this key French sector from the country's energy landscape.

It is as if France has become embarrassed about its success in nuclear. President Francois Hollande has announced that his country will scale back nuclear to 50 percent in the near future and replace it with renewable energy. France has not yet marred its countryside yet with 400-foot windmills and five-mile-square solar collectors but it seems eager to start. Germany gets oodles of favorable publicity for its efforts in renewable energy while France gets very little congratulations for its extremely low rates of carbon emissions. So it isn’t surprising that France is feeling somewhat reluctant of its success. In addition, renewable energy promises to remake capitalistic society top to bottom, which appeals to socialists like Hollande, while nuclear power is simply a logical extension of the old industrial society that only promises to clean up the mess caused by coal and oil.

Of course Areva, the French nuclear giant, did not have a stellar track record to show the visitors. It has been struggling to complete both the Olkiluoto reactor in Finland and the Flamanville rector in northern France for almost of decade and still has little to show for it. Meanwhile, Areva has hit on hard financial times and is being overtaken by state-owned nuclear companies in Russia and China. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development struggled to put an ad hoc committee session together on the last day called “Why the Climate Needs Nuclear Energy,” but it was poorly advertised and lightly attended.

Several observers noted that neither the nuclear industry not its arch-enemy Greenpeace was putting up a very loud showing at COP21. Loretta Stankevicuite, an energy consultant with the International Atomic Energy Association, said she was there to help countries make “informed decisions” about the use of nuclear power and to try to put nuclear power “on equal footing” with renewables in the final document. “Nuclear energy is a low-carbon technology with a huge potential for mitigating climate change,” she told anyone willing to listen.

But Greenpeace’s Jan Haverkamp told the exact opposite story. “There are now piles of scenarios that include different options for reaching decarbonization targets that do not include nuclear energy,” he told France 24. “To say it cannot be done is a total PR strategy.”

So things are likely to go on at their current pace despite any outcome from the COP21 conference. Russia, China and South Korea will go on building at a lively pace both at home and abroad throughout the world. Germany will continue its “Energiewende” away from nuclear and France will continue to be embarrassed at its nuclear success. The United States will hoe a middle ground, building four reactors in the South but allowing reactors to shut down prematurely in other parts of the country.

As James Hansen says, it is the development of Generation IV’s small modular reactors that is the path forward for nuclear. Whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will allow this to happen in the Unites States or whether it will happen abroad is the key question now facing thus country.

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