Nuclear power. It’s a gift from God, according to some — the answer to humanity’s prayer for limitless, clean electrical power. It’s the spawn of the Devil, others claim. Not only is there a risk of cataclysmic meltdown (see Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island), no one has ever figured out what to do with the radioactive waste products that have a half-life measured in millennia. It’s like raising pigs with no plan to deal with all the feces they produce. You could do it, but why?
The debate about whether nuclear power is “green” has been going on for decades. Germany says it’s not, and has closed many of its nuclear generating stations. France says it is and is planning to build up to 14 more over the next 30 years, according to The Guardian. Atomic energy provides about 70% of the electricity in France, where low cost nuclear power has been a mainstay of the French economy since the 1970s. However, recent attempts to build next generation reactors to replace older models have become mired in cost overruns and delays. (Oddly, we seldom hear about cost overruns and delays when it comes to solar energy projects.)
This past week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a “renaissance” for the French nuclear industry as part of that country’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. “What our country needs … is the rebirth of France’s nuclear industry.” Macron said French nuclear regulators were “unequaled” in their rigor and professionalism, and that the decision to build new nuclear power plants was a “choice of progress, a choice of confidence in science and technology.”
Macron didn’t always think that. When he first ran for the presidency, part of his platform was reducing the country’s reliance on atomic power. But his re-election is facing calls by right wing candidates to bolster France’s nuclear industry, calling it essential to its “sovereignty.” Similar arguments are often heard from right wing advocates in the US, who couch their support for oil and gas in language that emphasizes their importance to “national security.” The fact that the detritus from those fuels contributes to shorter lifespans and rising global temperatures never crosses their minds, however.
Macron’s challengers on the left warn about the cost and complexity of building new reactors. The Green presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, said there is a moral imperative to progressively end France’s dependence on nuclear power in order to protect the climate and safety of its citizens. He said Macron’s project was backward-looking and would condemn France to a kind of “energy and industrial obsolescence.”
Environmental advocates have raised safety concerns about radioactive waste that remains deadly for tens of thousands of years. Despite Macron’s assurance that France’s nuclear regulators are the best, The Guardian says EDF, France’s state controlled energy provider, faces delays and budget overruns on new nuclear plants under construction in France and Britain, and is experiencing corrosion problems in some of its older reactors.
Macron announced that EDF will build at least 6 new nuclear reactors by 2050, with an option for another 8. He also said EDF should extend the life of all existing French nuclear plants where it is safe to do so. While he was at it, he announced a major acceleration in the development of solar and offshore wind power, saying France has no choice but to rely on renewables and nuclear, before adding that the country would need to consume significantly less energy in the next decades. Just exactly how the French economy will thrive while using less electricity was not made clear.
France successfully lobbied the European Commission recently to include nuclear energy within its definition of “green power,” a designation that would unlock more investment dollars for nuclear generating plants. Other European nations also lobbied to add various forms of hydrogen and methane power to the “green” category. All in all, the Commission’s attempt to mandate more zero emissions energy for the EU has been significantly watered down, thanks to all the political horse trading going on behind the scenes.
That brings to mind this notable quote from Thomas Edison: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind, and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
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