01/04/2008: Korhola: A Climate for Nuclear Renaissance? /The Parliament Magazine
by Eija-Riitta Korhola MEP
Climate Politics Editor
The Climate Matters
I have always been struck by the special place that nuclear energy has in politics. Which other primary fuel has a phase-out, as in Germany and Belgium or a ban as in Italy, even an historic referendum against its use in Sweden - where almost 3 times more nuclear energy is generated now than at the time of the referendum over 20 years ago? Yet nuclear provides over 30% of the European Union’s electricity demand and is a major factor in improving the quality of the air we breathe.
In the Europolitics of environmental concerns, energy dependence and global competitiveness, nuclear energy is an essential part of the energy mix. For climate change mitigation, a subject very close to my heart, nuclear energy is the only mature, available and competitive energy source to replace fossil fuels whilst meeting spiralling global energy demand - yet it gains nothing from the Kyoto mechanisms.
In my global work, I hear the same old arguments against nuclear energy:
• It is unsafe. - But per kilowatt-hour of energy produced it has killed or harmed fewer people than any other significant primary fuel.
• There is a waste problem. - But the ‘problem’ only exists because nuclear is the only technology to separate and safely hold its waste. Underground safe storage is a reality in many places – including my home country: Finland. Is this not almost the same as the carbon sequestration and storage (CCS) plans for coal? The difference is: that CCS is not yet an economic reality even though centuries of waste disposal into the sky are contributing to the climate change problems of today.
• Decommissioning nuclear plants must be assured. – Well it is - and the costs are included in kilowatt-hour prices.
• We don’t need nuclear energy as we can rely on renewables and energy saving. – This is not a competition, simply we need all the clean energy we can produce and we will still not have enough.
I was not born with a pro-nuclear flag in my hand. Only a few years ago, these “old arguments” were my arguments too – perhaps unsurprisingly as statistically women tend to oppose nuclear energy and as a humanities and philosophy academic, I’m not even expected to voice an opinion on energy issues.
So how did I become a convert? It began in the late 1990’s with my realisation that the EU was becoming increasingly and alarmingly dependent on imported energy. Closer in time and closer to home, Finland’s decision of 2002 to build a fifth nuclear reactor came after strong public debate. As an MEP, I was not obliged to enter the fray but felt compelled. Why, I wondered, was it OK to import nuclear energy from neighbouring Russia but not build a nuclear plant in Finland? Why was it better to rely on natural gas – half as dirty as coal but still an emitting fossil technology? And conclusively: Why not base energy policy on climate concerns and economic self-sufficiency?
For more than a decade, I have been actively involved in global climate politics. And it was during that time in May 2002, when I realized that, in nuclear energy, we have a competitive, economically sound answer to the needs of today without becoming dangerously dependent on others. The situation may be different in 50 years, but nuclear power is a way to get us securely to the time when other non-emitting energy sources could become significant.
The climate is not equipped with ideological filters: it can't tell the difference between emissions due to so-called "nice reasons", like shutting down nuclear power and those deriving from pure ignorance. In practice, closing down nuclear power plants has always led to increased burning of fossil fuels. We must reject old dogmas and have a policy based on energy efficiency and all low emitting sources of energy. Nuclear energy alone is not the solution to the alarming and lethal changes in our climate but, without it, there is no solution.