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Global warming and nuclear hot air at COP23: nuclear front groups attempt to confuse the climate debate

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Tim Judson ‒ Executive Director, Nuclear Information & Resource Service

Nuclear power companies and promoters of the technology turned up their appeals for special treatment in November at COP23, the United Nations' global climate conference, held in Bonn, Germany.

What got the most attention were two high-profile promotional events that drew considerable protest from civil society groups at the conference: a November 13 forum held by the US delegation, promoting 'The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation'; and a November 15 presentation by Rosatom promoting 'Russia's Contribution to Low-emission Economies', particularly through nuclear reactor exports and natural gas extraction.

In addition, trade associations and professional organizations, from the European Nuclear Society to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, held yet more events and staffed exhibit booths throughout the conference. They were also joined by an astroturf presence consisting of front groups, such as Energy for Humanity and Generation Atomic, which held press conferences and were a vocal presence at COP23 events. One such event was held by Environmental Progress (EP) with climate scientist and nuclear power promoter James Hansen titled, 'Nuclear Power? Are Renewables Enough?'

The EP presentation promoted the release of a report, titled 'The Power to Decarbonize', which was also covered in the New York Times on November 7. The central thesis of EP's report is that renewables are less effective than nuclear at reducing the carbon intensity of energy supplies. This may seem like a strange metric for evaluating climate action strategies, and for good reason: carbon intensity is the rate of carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product, not the actual amount of greenhouse gas emissions, or the rate of change in those emissions. Rapid economic growth could disguise large increases in carbon emissions; whereas economic stagnation could turn decreased emissions into an increase in emissions intensity.

The EP report is replete with similar types of statistics, such as electricity generation per capita (kWh per person), the relevance of which is at best secondary to evaluating the climate impacts of energy technologies – particularly given high rates of population growth in many countries. The report also uses arbitrary and inconsistent time periods, selecting the 11-year periods of the fastest development of nuclear power in nine countries – again, measured in energy units per capita – versus a uniform 11-year period for renewable energy (2004‒2014) in eight countries, only three of which are the same. The rate of renewable energy growth has only begun to take off globally since 2010, so EP's basis for comparing nuclear and renewables is inherently skewed, including several years with no meaningful data for most countries. In addition, the analysis is skewed because of the enormous increase in global population between the periods EP analyzed for nuclear (mostly ending in the 1980s) and renewables (ending in 2014).

As a case in point, EP's analysis leaves out one of the most important factors in reducing greenhouse gas emissions: how quickly energy sources can be built. For instance, EP's report cites the period 1981‒1991 for nuclear in the US, but neglects to show that many of the reactors that came online in that time period took well over a decade to build. In contrast, wind and solar projects are typically developed in 2‒5 years. Take, for instance, the state of Texas in the US, which developed 15,000 MW of wind from 2006‒2015, generating as much electricity per year as all four of the state's nuclear reactors; the reactors all came online within five years of each other (1988‒1993), but each took 14-20 years to permit and build. Over a similar time-frame (2000‒2016), Texas built about 20,000 MW of wind, generating 50% more electricity than nuclear.

Similarly, the V.C. Summer 2 and 3 reactors in the US state of South Carolina were canceled in July 2017, nine years after beginning the permitting process. Construction of the reactors is less than 40% complete, with US$9 billion spent on the project and an estimated $17 billion more to complete. Utility customers in the state are reportedly paying 18% of their monthly bills toward the abandoned reactors. Had South Carolina utilities begun investing in renewables and efficiency 10 years ago instead of planning the nuclear project, South Carolina would have significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, at a far lower cost.

What matters in deciding how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is how quickly fossil fuel energy sources can be reduced and phased out, at what cost, and with what social and environmental impacts. Nuclear is failing on all counts, in nearly every country where reactors are being developed. EP and other nuclear promoters' use of obscure, inconsistent, and in many cases arbitrary statistics amounts to pseudo-scientific handwaiving – confusing the discussion of energy choices and climate action strategies.