Re-post Debate with Hans Blix
Kreisky Forum Speech – 5 Blossoming (May) 1997
With IAEA and Austrian Permanent Mission to the UN On Sustainable Development and Nuclear Power
No rational definition of sustainability includes the current design of nuclear power plants. The people alive today receive the benefits from these reactors and then the following thousands of generations have to deal with the expensive and dangerous radwaste we are producing. Interim waste sites have been plagued by popular opposition, technical and geologic problems and as the recent UK decision demonstrates, governmental rejection. As for long term spent fuel storage – there is not an operating site anywhere in the world, though dozens of countries have been working on it, some for decades and billions of dollars have been spent, virtually every national program has been delayed.
To be sustainable a resource must reproduce itself. The ambitious plans for a nuclear breeder program are in a shambles – with the Super Fenix in France never to rise again due to endless technical and licensing problems. The Japanese breeder program is likely permanently derailed in the wake of the serious accident at the only operating breeder facility at Monju.
Reprocessing is the other way the nuclear industry has attempted to sustain itself. But the economics of reprocessing have always be questionable at best and now numerous utilities are canceling their reprocessing orders. The recent UK decision to block the NIREX dump site also seriously endangers the THORP facility in England, which now will likely have to add huge waste transport costs to its fragile economic justification.
I can sympathize with many of the people in the audience today and those listening to the nuclear debate in general. With the conflicting claims of the nuclear lobby (including the IAEA) and environmental groups – who should you believe? Perhaps the rule i use is helpful. Listen to the experts who have no vested interest in the industry. With this in mind permit me to read you a quote:
”Nuclear plants are thus uneconomic because at present and projected costs they are unlikely to be the least-cost alternative. There is also evidence that the cost figures usually cited by suppliers are substantially underestimated and often fail to take adequately into account waste disposal, decommissioning and other environmental costs.“
That is from the World Bank, which has no vested interest in nuclear power but with the experts needed to evaluate it.
On the topic of CO2 reduction. The British governments 1995 Nuclear review found it was 3 to 5 times cheaper to reduce CO2 with non-nuclear solutions, than by building more reactors. The UK is a pro-nuclear government, if they say reactors are not the solution to climate change, i tend to believe them.
But before we get to far into the question of if nuclear power is an appropriate solution to the problem of climate change, i think it is instructive to ask the question, even if it were a solution, Where would these reactors be built? The nuclear industry is in decline, all of North America and Western Europe, except France has stopped building reactors. Yet this is where nearly two thirds of the reactors on the planet are and most of the elaborate infrastructure needed for nuclear power is.
Electricity deregulation is the final blow to nuclear in West Europe and North America. The German power utilities have informed their minister of environment to stop advocating new nuclear construction, because they have no intention of paying for it.
In the US, operating reactors facing a deregulated market are looking at closing early. If we pause and consider this for a moment, it is an incredible situation. The major investment for nuclear is the initial construction and then the promise is low operating costs. But if operating reactors in the States can not compete in a deregulated environment, then there is no chance for new construction.
The French nuclear giant EdF has recently completed a study which shows for the first time that gas is cheaper than nuclear power. With there usually commitment to transparency and open discussion, EdF is not releasing its own study. But the French pro-nuclear Le Monde got leaked a copy and ran as a headline „The End of the Nuclear Age“. With EdF looking at US$ 30 billion of debt and a government forced debt reduction package, plus the prospect of no new replacement orders for reactors – things are not so bright for the model French nuclear industry.
Beyond all this, i would contend that nuclear is not only economically and environmentally unfriendly – it is also undemocratic. The recent string of accidents in Japan has convinced the majority of the population for the first time even that nuclear power is the wrong solution. Japan thus follows almost all of the western countries, where the initial popularity of nuclear power, promoted by the industry and government claims was consistently eroded.
So this is all pretty depressing, where are the energy solutions for climate change if not in nuclear?
For many sectors of the economy the problem of sustainability is vexing. What is the sustainable level of steel production? How many microprocessors can we make this generation and leave enough of the scarce component resources for the following generations?
Fortunately, we do not have this problem with energy resources. We have a whole class of energy sources which are renewable: Wind, solar, geothermal, ocean and biomass. Most of these come in several different forms. Every country has accessible renewable resources, most have vast untapped potential.
First lets look at the disinterested studies. The European Commission estimates that by using a best practices approach we can obtain 19% of our primary energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. This is nearly 3 times the current level. This expansion would also permit Europe to meet its currently proposed CO2 level commitment.
A more robust analysis was done by a group of technical universities which created the Low Energy Europe report. This shows that at the current level of energy services (distinct from electricity or energy supply), using the currently available best technology for both saving energy and capturing renewables, we can cover 100% of Europe’s energy needs with renewables.
In conclusion, we can see that in terms of promotion of nuclear power as a solution to the global problem of sustainable development we can see the IAEA has outlived its usefulness. Perhaps with Dr. Blixs departure, we can put in his place a director for a new UN agency, who’s task it is to promote renewable energy sources and efficiency.
Thanx you for your time.
PS During the discussion which followed the presentations. Hans Blix [outgoing Executive Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency] got upset when i said nuclear power was undemocratic and he said that the protests at Gorleben were undemocratic. In my reply i reminded him that the majority of the Germans support the protesters and he retorted that the government did not. To which i shot back „then we will have to replace the government, wont we?” [which has no happened], which brought a few laughs from the audience. Later when i was saying protest was a needed ultimate democratic check to governments because they make mistakes, Blix was shaking his head fiercely in the front row. But when reminded the audience that had it not been for such protests, we would still have communist regimes in most of eastern Europe, he stopped shaking his head suddenly – apparently never having considered this point.