Phasing out nuclear power, a solution for the future?

April 1986, Ukraine: Chernobyl’s nuclear power station is at the heart of a major and unprecedented accident which threatens the weak biological, environmental and political world balances. March 2011, Japan: a tsunami hits Fukushima’s nuclear power plant, leading to a second major nuclear accident, of the 7th level of the International Nuclear Event Scale – the highest level. These two dates have become a red-letter day, because they have had a lot of significant consequences: for the environment, the public health, the international politics and even for the way we perceive our whole industrial culture. They have put into question the way we produce our energy, and even directly the way we consume it. What only was a risk, a scenario worth considering but unlikely, has become real; and the security-related questions, with the fear of the multiplication of such accidents, led to a global questioning of the civil nuclear industry.

Therefore, the nuclear energy is at the heart of the most virulent debates, especially nowadays when the environmental discourse is on the rise. This is particularly the case in France, the country of the nuclear energy par excellence, where its detractors are yet numerous. On the global scale, France is indeed the country which produces most of its electricity from the nuclear power: in 2017, 71,6% of the French’s electricity production was from the nuclear energy, according to EDF 1. Even though the world’s giant producer of electricity of nuclear power origin remains the USA (804.9TWh in 2017, versus 379.1 for France), the proportion of this industry in the national scale of electricity production does not go over the 20%.

Source: IEA, Word Energy Statistics. All rights reserved.

Though France never experienced any nuclear accident, there are many citizens who seriously consider the risk and the potential terrible consequences that such an incident would create if it came to occur. Associations such as Greenpeace, WWF, NégaWatt or even “Sortir du Nucléaire”2 are very active in France. They try both to impact the political decisions and to raise awareness among the people. NégaWatt, for example, passes its “2017-2050 Scenario” on. Based on 10 main objectives, this scenario plans a progressive phasing out of the civil nuclear industry up to 2035; which should be fully replaced by renewable energies from now until 2050. They also plan on getting rid of all fossil fuel industries and on splitting into two France’s energy consumption. Therefore, for these association, an alternative to the nuclear power industry does exist, and must be taken into consideration. Especially as they relay other arguments than that of the dangerous risk it represents. For example, they insist on the cost of the construction or maintenance of the nuclear power stations.

Indeed, most of the Occidental civil nuclear industries are aging: most of the nuclear power plants should reach their end of life deadline (40 years) by a few years. It will thus be necessary to undertake long series of expansive works in order to extend of 10 years the lifespan of the stations; or even to construct brand new stations to replace the old ones. Just for France, about 800 million of euros would be necessary to expend one reactor’s lifespan and to obtain a new operating license. Knowing that France possesses fifity-eight reactors, the calculation is fast and obvious… And this without thinking about the cost and the hazard of the radioactive waste processing, which is the main black spot of this sector. Another worse argument is that the nuclear civil industry does not favour the energy conservation. Indeed, the nuclear energy allows humanity to consume an infinite quantity of electricity, whenever, which perpetuates the myth of an inexhaustible energy.

The nuclear power is also accused of slowing the development of renewable energies, which, according to these associations and other opponents, could perfectly replace the nuclear power in a couple of decades. It therefore seems obvious, in support of all these arguments, that the civil nuclear industry is a tool which humanity should progressively and over time get completely rid of.

Source: IEA, Word Energy Statistics. All rights reserved.

And yet. This is not as easy as it may seem. The debate cannot be all black and white: contrary to what one may think, the nuclear civil industry is not all black and, above all, the actual statistics that defend it are numerous and convincing. Indeed, in addition to producing an energy on demand, abundant and “controllable”, the nuclear power has the impressive virtue of emitting very low CO2 emisions. In fact, this is one of the least polluting energy sources in that respect (together with the aeolian): the nuclear energy emits about 12g of CO2 by kWh (the aeolian 11). By comparison, the hydraulic energy emits 24g of CO2 by kWh, the photovoltaic 41, gas-fired power stations 490 and the gigantic coal-fired power stations 820. Moreover, even if the aeolian has very low emmissions it cannot produce as much electricity as the nuclear, nor it can produce it on demand. The numbers are thus demonstrative: the nuclear energy has an essential and significant virtue, which obliges us to reconsider it. All the more so as the environmental priority of this decade is to reduce our CO2 emissions, in order to contain the global warming under 2°C. And for now, some renewable energies do not even reach such good results on this point. For that matter, even though France is not a model for an ecologic country, it still is one of the Occidental countries which emits the least CO2, mainly thanks to its nuclear uniqueness. In 2017, France emitted only 0.9% of the global CO2 (that is to say, 4.56 tons/inhab./year, knowing that its population represented 0.8% of the global population) 3.

Source: IEA, Word Energy Statistics. All rights reserved.

Therefore, why should we consider the phasing out of the nuclear energy as an emergency? When most of the nuclear’s detractors underline the risks it could engender – that is to say its potential but not assured hazardous nature – the nuclear enthusiasts highlight concrete numbers, which demonstrate very well that a phasing out of the nuclear civil industry, right now, would do nothing but worsening the global warming. Besides, most of the GIEC’s positive scenarios (succeeding in keeping the global warming under 2°C, or even 1.5°C), take the nuclear energy on. Furthermore, according to the French engineer Jean-Marc Jancovici (among many others), the idea that the nuclear industry could be entirely replaced by renewable energies is partially wrong. For such a scenario to work, it would be necessary to drastically reduce our energy consumption. It would thus be more accurate to say that this substitution would be “mainly done thanks to electricity savings, and marginally thanks to renewable energies”4.  Such a reduction of our consumption could only happen in the long run, progressively. Presently, phasing out of the nuclear energy would therefore be a debatable choice, because we cannot entirely replace it with renewable energies yet – especially because they are not neither abundant nor “controllable”, that is to say, they depend of an external factor that we do not control, such as wind or sun. We would necessarily need to compensate with resources which have a similar output to the nuclear’s: coal, gas or hydraulic. The latter require a specific geographical situation, or a significant human, economic and environmental cost, non-affordable for most of the countries.

As Jean-Marc Jancovici states, it is important to ask a question whose answer is not as obvious as it seems “are renewable energies more ecological than the nuclear energy?5.The hydraulic, the only option which really equals that of the nuclear (because it emits few CO2 and is able to produce electricity in abundance), would require very non ecological measures, such as drowning an entire valley. This is what happened for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, world’s biggest hydraulic dam. Besides, Jancovici notes that the number of persons who had to be moved for the construction of the dam is five to ten times higher than the number of those moved because of Chernobyl’s or Fukushima’s nuclear catastrophes – especially as, regarding Chernobyl, a reversibility effect has already been observed, something that would be impossible in the case of the Three Gorges. As a result, it would be necessary to partially replace the nuclear civil industry by a system based on the use of fossil fuels. However, the consequences of such a replacement both on the environment and on public health would be worse than the initial system, based on nuclear energy. It would thus mean that humanity would retrace its steps, increasing its production of carbon dioxide.

Even though the zero risk does not exist, and that the potentially dangerous nature of the nuclear power (especially concerning its radioactive wastes) is to be taken into real consideration; it seems that this energy has particularly been demonised, its actual virtues being often forgotten. And yet, the climate change emergency still exists, and efficient measures must be taken and applied soon in order to avoid the worst catastrophe scenario. In this case, would a political measure aiming at the phasing out of the nuclear civil industry be a good measure? For now, the answer seems to be no. But it appears quite obvious that we should focus our scientific researches on two main issues: the development of the renewable energies and their capacities; as well as finding a way to get rid of the nuclear wastes and to strengthen the security of the nuclear power stations.

Eventually, mankind may find a better energy, really clean. Meanwhile, as the researcher in the “Institut du développement durable et des relations internationales (IDDRI)”7. Henri Waisman states it, the « decarbonisation can be made through different ways: the renewable energies, the catching and sequestration of carbon […] or even the nuclear energy. […] This will depend on the cost hypothesis compared to the other options. The energy transition is a choice to make. None is perfect, even renewable energies have impacts. It is essential to look at the issue in all its complexity. There will not be easy solutions8.

1. Electricité de France, French main producer and provider of electricity, possessed at 80% by the French State
2. Literally “Phasing out of the Nuclear Energy”
3. For example, compared to China, first global CO2 emitter (28.2% of CO2 global emissions in 2017, with 6.68 tons/inhab./year). It is a better number than for most of the other Western European countries (8.70 tons/inhab./year for Germany, 5.45 for Spain, 5.43 for the UK, and 5.31 for Italy).
4. « essentiellement fait par des économies d’électricité, et marginalement par des énergies renouvelables ». The author’s translatio à J-M Jancovici,« Discussion autour de quelques idées reçues sur le nucléaire civil »,
5. Ibid. « Les énergies renouvelable sont-elles plus écologiques que le nucléaire ? », author’s translation.
6. Henri Waisman, pour un article de France Tv Info du 09/07/2019, « Faut-il sortir du nucléaire pour sauver la planète ? Sept arguments pour comprendre le débat ».
7. French Institute of the sustainable development and of international relations, author’s translation.
8. Author’s translation. See Henri Waisman, in an article for France Tv Info (09/07/2019), « Faut-il sortir du nucléaire pour sauver la planète ? Sept arguments pour comprendre le débat » : la « ‘décarbonisation’ peut passer par de multiples moyens : le renouvelable, la capture et la séquestration de carbone […] ou encore le nucléaire.  […] Cela dépendra des hypothèses de coût comparées aux autres options. La transition énergétique est un choix à faire. Aucun n’est parfait, les renouvelables aussi ont des impacts. C’est essentiel de regarder le problème dans sa complexité. Il n’y aura pas de solutions simples »

Laura Poiret

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