Article published in the french paper Les Echos dated July 7, 2000.
NB : However I have reproduced here the text that I sent to the paper and not the text – edited without my consent – that was effectively published. Indeed, the written press very often does minor (hopefully !) editing without asking the authors of chronicles. This is also true for the title : the published one (which is not the one above) was chosen by the paper.
I also included a couple notes, not published, that result from the reactions of some persons to whom I sent the draft prior to its publication.
Though there is no shortage of legitimate fights to allow that the human species doesn’t witness a dramatic degradation of its living conditions during the century to come, why on earth is nuclear energy, against all observable facts, so often taken as a target by who wants to prove his concern of preserving man and the environment ? Should one necessarily by against nuclear energy to be an ecologist ?
Nuclear energy, since its origin, has killed less people than a single week of driving in Europe. Why do coal and oil, that each directly killed people by tens of thousands (1), not to mention all wars that they have generated and that killed millions (2), do not share this disgrace ?
Do we know that coal fired power plants reject more radioactivity in the environment than nuclear power plants ? That the extra radioactivity generated in France by the famous “Chernobyl cloud” represented only a little fraction of what we voluntarily take each year because of medical exams ? That nuclear waste is less of a nuisance than some heavy metal coumpounds or persistant organic pollutants that we do not care to confine as well ? That pigs and artichokes, that yet do not frighten anyone, have made the breton rivers and groundwaters unsuitable for human consumption for a couple decades at least, “sterilizing” in a way a territory much larger than the one concerned by the Chernobyl accident ?
Does it have a meaning to claim a zero risk for nuclear energy when we currently accept to run much higher risks otherwise, and that we do not wish at all to avoid ? Does any country just considers to ban whisky and beer, that kill much more than nuclear power plants ?
Germany however indicated it intended to do without. As it doesn’t seem very likely that the Germans will at the same time decrease significantly their energy consumption, which would however be a good way to preserve man and the environment (remark valid for all rich countries), then comes the point – surprinsingly absent from the discussion – of what will replace 30% of their electricity generation.
Are they going to call on renewables ? The reader will judge : to produce all french electricity with biomass we should use…… 100% of the French land ; with wind power only we should cover with windmills twice the surface – already considerable – of roads and parkings (just to replace one nuclear reactor we should put one windmill every 100 metres on all the Atlantic shore), and with just dams, we should flood almost all the valleys in the Alps !
Solar energy could represent someday a very significant fraction of the supply without too many inconvenients : covering 50% of the existing roofs with photovoltaïc solar panels would produce the equivalent of our present electricity consumption. But some arudous problems remain to be solved (including storage : the maximum production is in summer and the maximum consumption is in winter), and a massive spreading of individual solar will not happen in a couple years.
Besides, the electricity consumption is increasing all the time, and the liberalization of electricity in Europe will not encourage a reversal of this trend (we might bitterly regret our move in a couple decades). Thus replacing, in 20 years, 30% of an evergrowing electricity consumption by renewables is totally unrealistic without a much deeper questioning of the content of the economic growth. With “everything remaining equal otherwise”, renewables will at best allow to face the extra electricity demand in Germany.
If Germans really implement their declaration, the most probable, because the most convenient, is that they will replace nuclear energy by fossil fuels (gas included). This will increase their greenhouse gases emissions (CO2), though scientists assert that prudence – thus reason – would be to achieve a division by 2 to 3 of our present emissions without losing too much time.
The consequences of global warming – that alas do not consist only in being a little warmer all year long – are not minor : declining of the vegetation, threatening of marine life, increase of the intensity and number of storms, floodings and droughts, change in marine currents, possible new outbreaks ; occidental countries aren’t guaranteed against any of these hazards.
This process is furthermore characterized by a considerable inertia : we just begin to witness the consequences of the greenhouse gases emissions made since the begining of the industrial era, and what we emit today will strongly influence the environmental conditions that our grandchildren will live with. And at last history tells us that increasing the dependancy of a country to a non renewable resource coming from the outside (which is the case for oil and gas in Germany today) is increasing the risk of war. Coal has provided many examples.
As energy consumption is constantly rising, and resources are necessarily finite, there comes a day, if we do not bend the trend (in a couple decades at most according to some scenarios, which means actually tomorrow) (3) where there won’t remain much below our feet. How do the powers of the moment will then share the shortage ? Asking the question is almost answering it…
All these various risks would be preferable to La Hague, or even to Chernobyl ? One could think so 20 years ago, but not in the light of what we know now. Even if nuclear power doesn’t constitute, taken alone, a sufficient answer to the double problem of climate change and the programmed depletion of tfossil fuels, it is an irreplaceable component of the solution in the short term, and today wisdom would rather suggest to call more on it that to part from it.
If there is a priority, it would rather be to replace all our fossil fuel consumption by renewables (probably mostly solar given the inconvenients of the other production modes) and… savings.
But giving up nuclear energy today, it is depriving ourselves of a very consequent action possibility to preserve the future, it is abusively looking for a “zero risk” regarding an industry already very secure while increasing in the same time other risks far more fearsome, it is making a fool of our kids and grandkids. One might acknowledge that the managers of the nuclear idustry have not always been an example of transparency or of brilliant communication. Still, should we get rid of nuclear power because of that ?
Managing to maintain, in a peaceful world, and without destroying the planet, a relative energy abundance during the century that comes is far from being an easy move. Actually, a close examination shows that it is the only vital element that remains at stake for Occidentals, and in a way for the rest of the world. To be persuaded of this, just figure out for a couple minutes a world where there would not be oil and electricity any more…..
The level of our energy consumption and the way to obtain it are far too important items to be discussed only during short term campaign negociations. If there is a subject that justifies a referendum, far more than our currency or the length of the presidential mandate, it is definitely the amount of energy we should use and the way to obtain it : for such a problem, it would not be ridiculous to set up a european referendum.
(1) 5,000 to 10,000 deaths per year in China only depending on the (credible !) sources.
(2) Calculating in a rigorous way the number of deaths that can be considered a consequence of fights for the possession of coal mines or oil fields is of course totally impossible. However, it is quite clear that if we examine all the confilcts that took place during the 20 st century, and even before, one of the possible explanations of the war will often be a will to secure an energy source.
For example, the multiple japanese raids on the mainland (China, Korea) were probably not totally disconnected from energy supply considerations (Japan has no oil and almost no coal), the Iran-Irak war was probably a little about oil, or, closer to France, the possession of coal-rich (at the time !) Lorraine was one of the main reasons of the 1870 and 1914 wars in Europe. Even the last world war probably was motivated, in some places, by energy supply considerations. Now, in a war that always has multiple reasons, how many deaths can we allocate to the item “energy supply” alone ? Wise guy who could say it, but given the total number of deaths that these wars generated, a couple millions casualties doesn’t seem so high….
(3) This is mostly true for oil. Gas and coal reserves allow a longer time before scarcity becomes a problem.