Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Were nukes a major beneficiary of Copenhagen?

Switch the first two letters in the word "nuclear" and that sums up the role of this role of this technology in mitigating climate change, i.e. unclear. A couple of things are clear, however. One is that the big issues associated with nuclear energy: costs, radioactive wastes and weapons-grade byproducts still persist. Another is that nuclear and wind energy are the two most viable utility-scale greenhouse-free energy options available today. (GW)

Nuclear's Next Round

By Ken Silverstein
EnergyBiz Insider
January 11, 2010

Round One of the Copenhagen Accord is now finished. And so the real work must be done -- to hammer out the details on just how global temperatures can be kept in check. One issue that must be resolved is that of nuclear energy and the role it will play.

Decision-makers are now challenged with how to cut the rate of greenhouse gas emissions while also becoming more self-reliant. As they gather in the coming months they will take into account that nuclear power has relatively few such releases associated with it while the uranium used to create the electricity is plentiful.

"Independent analysis of climate change mitigation strategies internationally show that a substantial expansion of nuclear energy is needed to meet climate change goals in a manner that reduces the cost of energy to consumers," says the Nuclear Energy Institute. "These benefits are being expanded with more than 50 new reactors under construction."

The debate is a heated one in many western nations. But most developing countries as well as those in Eastern Europe are either considering or developing such projects.

Specifically, 57 are now underway while 430 more are proposed. Altogether, 436 reactors are producing 15 percent of the world's electricity, says the nuclear institute. Much of the current construction is in the Asian countries and especially in China where 20 are getting built and 32 more are expected to be up and running by 2020. In Eastern Europe polls show that a preponderance of the people favors nuclear construction.

That growing acceptance forced negotiators during the Copenhagen conference to remove any exclusion on nuclear power. That means that countries can include nuclear power in their mitigation plans, however, no firm plans can be made unless a final agreement is realized. The next steps are for countries to meet in Bonn, Germany in June and in Mexico City at the end of 2010.

Even the United States seems to be turning a corner where nuclear proponents have become less abrasive and more welcoming to different viewpoints. While neither the House nor the Senate climate change bills mention nuclear energy as a permissible technology to reduce emissions, the White House and Congress have allocated $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to four pending projects, and they have appropriated $40 billion to next-generation nuclear plants.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, applications for 26 new nuclear units are now pending with federal regulators and of those, it is hoping that at least four will get built. That would be necessary not only to comply with expected clean air rules but also to meet the predicted increase in electricity demand of 20 percent by 2020.

Future Factors

Most in the environmental community -- but not all -- say that nuclear power's standing ought to be minimized. They are therefore working hard to ensure that it is not included in any permanent language in an international agreement that would ease emissions.

Their arguments center on the safety of nuclear plants as well as the cost of building these plants. They are also asking how to store spent fuel and prevent such fuels from being diverted to make nuclear weapons. Those folks say that the only true clean energy comes from such sustainable energies as the wind, sun, geothermal and biofuels.

"Even if there is further development of nuclear power, it will be far too slow because it takes 10 to 15 years to get a nuclear power plant at a point of producing electricity," says Sue Wareham, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, in an interview with the European news service IPS. "We need action faster than that."

Despite the vigorous opposition, nuclear energy discussions have moved from the back rooms to the front halls where global warming talks are underway. The Group of Eight -- the world's most advanced economies -- have voiced support for the energy source provided that any future development abides by non-proliferation standards.

Japan, for example, wants to supply 40 percent of its electricity mix with nuclear power by 2030. France, the global leader for nuclear, produces nearly 80 percent of its power through nuclear and is looking to augment that percentage. Meanwhile, other promising economies such as Russia and South Korea are increasing the position of nuclear power in their energy portfolios.

Their rationale is that they must address the pressures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while also working to make their countries more energy independent. As such, nuclear energy could provide such a dual-purpose solution. To put the matter in perspective, 6.5 billion people exist today but by 2050, that number is expected to 9.2 billion. By the time that developing countries electrify, the need for energy will double.

"The opposition is complex, but also politically and ideologically charged," says George Koodray, president of Palmyra Media Group. "And, when you fold into that equation the political correctness of utility executives around the nation and their fear of the financial risk associated with the commitment to construction of a new nuclear plant, it all adds up to no movement with this technology."

No doubt that the resistance to preventing a greater nuclear presence is intense. But that determination is running headfirst into an even more powerful force: a growing populace that will be demanding cleaner and more reliable energy. And those are the factors that negotiators of the next global climate treaty will have to consider.


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