The following article appeared in the 14 December 2009 edition of the French daily Libération. It was written by Francis Sorin, Director of Information at SFEN, and translated into English by Mark O’Donovan.

Nuclear versus CO2

Energy experts and politicians used to question whether nuclear should be included in the fight against global warming. Well, as witnessed by the recent adoption - by a large majority -of a European Parliament Resolution that emphasises how “the transition to a global low-carbon economy has made nuclear energy an important player in the medium term energy mix,” they don’t need to any more.

Indeed, politicians and decision-makers in Europe, Asia and the US have recognised that the development of nuclear energy can improve our chances of avoiding a climatic event that would have disastrous consequences for the planet. But what are the arguments to support this thesis?

In order to combat climate change it is imperative that everyone, from the most committed productivist to the most ardent anti-productivist, agree upon one fundamental precept - that global emissions of CO2 must be reduced and, consequently, our dependence upon fossil fuels. Within this context nuclear energy has more impressive credentials than any other energy source when it comes to providing an effective and suitable replacement for fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is currently the only immediately available alternative energy source that can deliver “on demand” massive supplies of electricity without emitting any CO2. It is this significant ecological characteristic that to a large extent explains the global nuclear renaissance. What’s more, not just politicians but also leaders of flagship environmental organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth now concede that lifting any ban on nuclear energy would be consistent with the objective of fighting climate change.
In simple terms it has now become clear that nuclear can go a long way towards helping achieve the global CO2 reduction targets discussed at the Copenhagen Summit. Research carried out by specialised energy organisations has endorsed, in spectacular fashion, the conclusion that climate change is most effectively controlled in those scenarios where nuclear energy plays a determining role.

Today, around 30 billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted every year. This total has to be reduced by 50% by around 2030. If nuclear energy were sufficiently developed between now and 2030 – for example by doubling its current capacity in order to progressively replace decommissioned coal-fired power plants in industrialised countries – it would save 5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. A potential emissions saving of this magnitude, while clearly not the only objective, does nevertheless represent a significant asset when it comes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and preventing it from spiralling out of control.

If you believe the vast majority of climatologists today the threat of such an uncontrollable event occurring is very real. On 23 November 2009, Hervé Le Treut, one of France‘s most respected climatologists, declared: “As far as CO2 emissions are concerned, we have already gone beyond the worst-case scenario.” In other words, all the means currently at our disposal must be urgently exploited to reduce CO2 emissions. A combination of energy efficiency measures and use of renewable energy sources, which some people advocate as the solution to all our woes, simply cannot alone guarantee that that objective will be achieved. To get closer to achieving it the extra contribution of nuclear energy is indispensable. To ignore this energy source or to deliberately exclude it would be a highly irresponsible act tantamount to “non-assistance” of our endangered planet. In the climate change challenge that we face every tonne of CO2 emissions saved is important; every billion tonnes avoided is a vital contribution to the cause. The operational start-up of every new non-carbon energy production facility – whether based on exploiting renewables or nuclear energy – is a step in the right direction.

Logically, therefore, nuclear energy should be recognised during the Copenhagen Summit as a useful energy source for preserving the climate. Furthermore, it should also be “officially” included among a range of electricity producing technologies aimed at replacing fossil fuels and generating electricity at a time when global demand could double by 2050.

Francis Sorin, SFEN


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