Should we phase out nuclear power?
A necessary transition towards renewable energies
The catastrophe of Fukushima last April has reopened the debate on the civil nuclear energy. In fact, this catastrophe has been followed by a sudden realization in the whole world that it is impossible to disregard all risks in nuclear matters. France is particularly affected by this since it has the world’s second largest nuclear power plant and 75% of its electricity comes from these plants. Despite the Japanese example and the virulence of the debate, no decision has been taken concerning the reduction of the nuclear plants. Despite that nuclear energy means an inacceptable threat, it is often underestimated, in particular regarding the new generation of nuclear reactors. It seems to be important to start the transition towards renewable energies today in order to phase out nuclear energy eventually. Yet, the majority of the French political class finds it hard to take a stand.
An underestimated and unacceptable nuclear risk
The production of electricity by nuclear power plants goes hand in hand with major risks. First of all, it carries an environmental risk since a nuclear plant produces radioactive waste and technological risks, that is to say the risk of a major catastrophe which endangers the human race. The whole debate is based on the evaluation of the advantages of nuclear power versus its risks. And yet nuclear energy is the object of industrial lobbying which minimizes the impact of an accident in the eyes of the State and the public. Each nuclear plant has to undergo a probability analysis which determines the probability of an accident happening as well as the solution to it but it appears that some nuclear plants in France were neither adapted to deal with terrorist threats nor natural catastrophes nor insured in a satisfactory manner because insurance companies do not cover them for risks above a certain limit. When it comes to the argument stating that nuclear energy guarantees France’s energy independence it is no more than a myth. The uranium, used as fuel in the nuclear plants, is imported. Finally, in the long term, the occurrence of an accident is almost certain. And yet, the reactors of Fessenheim, Tricastin and Bugey are in service since more than 30 years and the next generation of reactors will have a lifespan of about 60 years! One of these third generation reactors called EPR is at the moment under construction in France and constitutes the stumbling block of the debate on nuclear power. Its power will be superior to those of the second generation which could induce terrible consequences in case of an accident and its nuclear waste will be seven times more radioactive. What is more, it has been clearly been shown by Greenpeace that the authorities of EDF (Électricité de France, Electricity of France] have minimized the risks in their. Can we then still speak of an acceptable risk? Nuclear power does not only mean a threat to the population at present but also endangers the environment of future generations. The risk involved with nuclear power cannot then be considered acceptable, especially since alternatives exist.
The necessary transition towards renewable energies…
It is possible to start an energy transition which will allow us, over decades, to decrease or even to completely phase out the production of electricity by nuclear power. The principle is relatively simple; it is based on switching from nonrenewable energy, which will disappear once the stocks run out, like nuclear energy, to renewable energy which is not dangerous at all. However, the implementation requires a real effort in Research and Development and above all, the monitoring of the use of energy by private persons as well as on a collective level. The development of the use of biomass (wood, agricultural byproducts, biogas) should be established as well as abandoning electrical heating. The setup of smart grids for the measurement of peaks of consumption should be encouraged and especially a bigger initiative should be left to the local level, since the citizens have to be involved in the process of transition for it to succeed. Finally, the cost of energy production from renewable sources keeps going down while that of nuclear power keeps rising because of increasing costs of security measures. That argument cannot be disregarded in times of crisis.
…is slowed down by an unresponsive political class
Unfortunately French politicians are little engaged for a transition even when they are not openly supporting nuclear power. Apart from the green party of Europe Ecologie - les Verts (EELV), who lobby for the phasing out of nuclear energy but who have trouble establishing the mere idea of the reduction of nuclear power plants in France, only the party of ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy has a firm opinion on the topic. The latter has in fact declared that “abandoning nuclear energy would be like cutting off an arm”. François Hollande, who opposed Sarkozy during the presidential elections [see connecting articles of Duel Amical on France], previously declared that he would stop the construction of the EPR before changing his mind and at the moment his opinions on the matter remain unclear due to his support of plan to decrease of the proportion nuclear energy in electricity production from 75% to 50%.
In face of the lack of initiative the French political class is ready to make it falls back on citizens to mobilize and take initiatives to launch a real transition. It is in fact more than necessary to escape the nuclear energy trap since nowadays less dangerous alternatives are available. But for a transition to take place it would be essential that we change our behavior when it comes to electricity consumption.
This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.
Following the anti-nuclear trends would be madness
Today nuclear power is Public Enemy No1. We should, however, beware of the influences of trends. Particularly France should put the reproaches concerning nuclear power in perspective since it is the source of more than 20% of the country’s energy consumption. This percentage illustrates well that completely abandoning nuclear power as a source of energy would be unreasonable. France should stand firm on this issue and refuse to sacrifice this part of its industry on the altar of anti-nuclear fashion.
An unrealistic project
France has already invested so much in nuclear energy that abandoning it overnight would cost a price that the country is surely not ready to pay in this time of economic crisis. Moreover, everybody seems to agree on the fact that the quick phasing out of nuclear energy cannot be done without a considerable decrease in the consumption of electricity. Meanwhile, only a few of those who, for having a clear conscience, support the new anti-nuclear trend would be ready to radically transform their behavior in order to reduce the national electricity consumption. Agreeing with something in principle is not necessarily the same as real, militant commitment…
An unreasonable trend
Everyone seems to agree on the fact that we should favor electricity versus gas and petrol. It should then be clearly understood that nuclear power supplies 78% of electricity in France. This huge portion cannot be replaced by “green” energy without massive investment and the destruction of natural landscapes. Does this trend really justify the staggering amounts of money which would be necessary for the closure of the 58 French nuclear reactors in addition to the costs of the installation of “less dangerous” ways of producing electricity? We may not say yes to it citing the risks of accidents or ecology. The probability of a tidal wave, a strong earth-quake or a kamikaze exploding a nuclear plant is quite low in France.
Furthermore, these reactors are not the sole sources of danger. Do we still bear in mind, for example that there is also a risk that a dam might break? Each way of electricity production has its advantages and its disadvantages, choosing it should be in line with the ideals we stand for. How can someone call themselves an ecologist when they support the decision to abandon nuclear power in Germany, which will cause more carbon pollution due to increasing production from coal powered generators? The risk of an ecological catastrophe can certainly be taken into account when it comes to nuclear power but the daily pollution by carbon combustion is absolutely undeniable.
France is going through an economic crisis. Is it really the best moment to fire people on a large scale? Such a huge nuclear industry cannot disappear without creating massive unemployment in the regions that prosper from it. Of course, those fired because of a change in attitude towards nuclear power will sooner or later find themselves a job… However, in present circumstances that could take a while.
A simplistic view
By associating the wish to abandon nuclear power with the desire to avoid a waste of energy, by insulating homes better for example, the supporters of nuclear energy are viewed as polluters. This vision is too restrictive. Certainly, cheap electricity does not favor the battle against energy wastage but it helps a bigger number of people to have access to heating and light… raising awareness would be the weapon against wasting energy. It would be unjust to raise the price of electricity only to force people to reduce their consumption, especially for those who are already at the verge of consuming the minimum possible. It is possible to be ecological and social while supporting nuclear power. That is the path that France will choose to take.