The Nuclear Temptation The Perils of Pushing Atomic Energy as the Climate Change Panacea

Is nuclear power on the verge of a renaissance? Its supporters argue that atomic energy is the only way to satisfy humanity's hunger for more energy without aggravating the effects of global warming. Critics, however, regard the nuclear hype as over-simplistic optimism fueled by an industry in distress.


Two cooling towers at the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant in Germany: currently 435 atomic plants are online in 31 countries.

Two cooling towers at the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant in Germany: currently 435 atomic plants are online in 31 countries.

The constant drizzle coming down over the Cotentin Peninsula on Normandy's coast has cloaked France's nuclear future in a fine mist. Massive electricity towers stand in the wet fog looking like identical giants with slumping shoulders. "British weather," says Philippe Leigné while looking at the dirty hulks of concrete that comprise the nuclear reactors Flamanville 1 and 2. The construction foreman for French energy titan Electricité de France then points to a pit near the foot of a small rise.

"We have to move 600,000 cubic meters of granite," says Leigné. There's not much time left. He has to pour the foundation for Flamanville 3 onto the rocky Norman soil this year to keep what will become the world’s most powerful reactor on schedule to deliver electricity to the grid by 2012.

The construction site in Normandy is in many ways a test case for the French nuclear industry. Electricité de France operates 58 reactors across the country, generating more than 75 percent of France's electricity. But the plants have aged, and the company will probably have to take the first one offline by 2017.

Their replacements are already in the works; EDF could have 10 new so-called third-generation reactors in operation by 2020. The energy giant can continue to count on political support. French parliament voted in July 2005 to keep all of the country's atomic options open, and France's new conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has no intention of reducing the nuclear power industry’s significance.

France is pushing toward a new atomic age -- and the Grande Nation nucléaire is not alone. Long relegated to dark corners, the nuclear industry is working hard to develop a new, clean and green image.

Convenient Optimism

When Russia arbitrarily cuts Europe off from the oil and natural gas supplies that normally flow through its pipelines, the nuclear energy industry certainly becomes an unexpected recipient of good PR. But more than anything, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) pessimistic forecast is causing a bout of atomic optimism. The United Nations-backed panel went so far as to recommend building new nuclear reactors as a strategy to tackle global warming in a report it published this year.

Graphic: A Radiant Future?

Graphic: A Radiant Future?

Nuclear energy is largely carbon neutral, which allows the industry to accept and promote the worst-case climate change scenarios while simultaneously presenting itself as a potential solution to the problem of global warming. "A lot of politicians have realized that climate change is not based on the fantasies of crazy scientists, but is rather something knocking at the door," says Robert Davies, an executive for the French nuclear company Areva NP. "Suddenly nuclear technology doesn't look quite so bad anymore."

The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based think-tank, supports such reasoning. Its 2006 study, "World Energy Outlook 2006” suggests that nuclear energy could contribute significantly to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Atomic Renaissance or Wishful Thinking?

For now, new anxieties over a potential global climate catastrophe are replacing old fears of a nuclear meltdown. Even in Germany, which decided in 2000 to gradually phase out nuclear power, such arguments are becoming widespread. Michael Glos, Germany’s Economics Minister and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, believes that extending the lifespan of the country's nuclear power plants is essential to meeting the country’s climate protection targets.

Critics, however, question the underlying nature of that argument. Nuclear power simply doesn't have the ability to influence global warming decisively, says Henrik Paulitz of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). "The effects of atomic energy on the world's climate are minimal and will remain minimal," he says, adding that electricity produced by nuclear power accounts for only 3 percent of global energy consumption. "Even a massive increase would therefore hardly have an impact."

Graphic: Radioactive Legacy

Graphic: Radioactive Legacy

Moreover, issues like plant safety, radioactive waste, the decoupling of nuclear proliferation from civilian usage, and the rapid depletion of the world’s uranium deposits remain unresolved. "There are absolutely no solid indications of an atomic energy renaissance relevant to energy economics or climate policy," nuclear energy critic Klaus Traube wrote in a study for DNR, an umbrella organization for nature and environmental protection groups in Germany. Traube, who worked in the nuclear industry before becoming an outspoken detractor in the 1970s, considers enthusiasm for new reactors the wishful thinking of an industry in distress.

Nuclear expert Michael Sailer from the Institute for Applied Ecology in Darmstadt, Germany, also thinks the industry's optimism is unfounded. "My prediction is that in 15 years we won't have any more nuclear power plants around the world than we do today," says Sailer. He concedes, however, that several new nuclear reactors will be built in the coming years, but he's also convinced that even more aging power plants will be shut down. "If the technology is revived at all it will be for military reasons."


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