Interview published on the “Journal du Dimanche” website on 9th January 2022
As usual, the title and introductory text before the interview, which you can find below, were drafted by the newspaper’s editorial staff and not proofread by me. The text of the interview below is the one I sent to the newspaper, once proofread and amended. The interview was conducted by Marianne Enault.
The European Union is preparing to include nuclear power among the transitional energy sources, within the framework of green taxonomy, with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Jean-Marc Jancovici, engineer and chairman of The Shift Project, a think tank for a decarbonized economy, points out that fission does not emit CO2 and looks at the different energy scenarios for France. For him, “nuclear power must contribute to decarbonization”, while, on the other hand, he believes that staking everything on renewables is risky.
The European Commission wishes to include nuclear energy in the green energy category. What are your thoughts?
This taxonomy is an attempt by the European Commission initiated, four years ago, to provide the world of Finance with something that is both simple and accurate – which is quite a challenge – to allow them to measure how compatible their investments are with a world moving towards decarbonization. There are two ways of seeing this problem. The first one is to assess each investment on whether the world becomes less carbonized as a result of it. For instance, if you build a new factory in Europe to sell electrical vehicles to replace internal combustion engine cars, it will indeed lower the CO2 emissions of the European Union. However, if you build the very same factory in China to add electric cars to the pool of already existing cars, global emissions will increase.
Through this method, there are neither green nor non-green sectors. I can for instance improve the efficiency of a coal power plant and thereby lower emissions, while on the other hand investing in wind turbines in addition to the existing structures and increase – even slightly – global emissions. But if the European Commission had adopted this approach, it would have required the world of Finance to make a considerable effort to analyze the relevance of each individual investment, case by case.
The Commission therefore went for another option, that basically consists in labeling items as green or non-green, sometimes regardless of their deployment conditions. The limit to this approach is that numerous sectors are simply out of scope of this convention: if I invest in a factory producing fishing rods or cooking pots, is it green or not? This taxonomy does not say. On the other hand, the whole energy sector is covered, and all renewables are green, for instance. As explained above, that is still open for discussion: if you use wind and solar energies, it is better than gas, but not as green as nuclear energy due to the higher amounts of metals, space and other raw materials that these renewables require.
What about nuclear energy?
The Commission has been hesitant as it had inscribed in this taxonomy the principle of “Do no significant harm”. This principle means that you should improve the main indicator (CO2) without hurting anything else. Strictly speaking, this is impossible as any human activity has drawbacks and unwanted side-effects. This indicator can therefore only be used conventionally – thus possibly “politically” – but not scientifically. If you look at the facts, nuclear energy must contribute to decarbonization.
Fission does not produce CO2. Nuclear energy is highly concentrated, and uses very small amounts of materials. The fission of one gram of uranium yields as much energy as the combustion of one metric ton of oil. Mass-wise, it is thus one million times more economical than fossil fuels. The installations – the power plants, naturally, but also the mines and transport infrastructures – are therefore in fewer numbers, with less land-take.
Fission also produces waste, but in small amounts. Scientific reports tell us that, compared to other energy sources, nuclear has the lowest environmental and health externalities. Therefore, if one takes a scientific point of view, why would nuclear energy not be green? The European Commission is therefore right to claim that it belongs to the eligible energies.
Can we really speak of transitional energy considering the time needed to build a new power plant? Our climate objectives are set to 2030 and 2050…
If we say that it is a transitional energy until 2050, it comes down to saying it is a sustainable energy! And everyone understands that political promises for 2050 are not commitments in any way… The most important point is to say that as of now, that nuclear energy is on the right side.
Does it mean that we need to build more power plants in France?
Pointing out the physical properties of nuclear energy does not imply anything about the pace of plant building. However one must remember what is at stake: the European Union committed to carbon neutrality in 2050. In practice, this means that we need to lower our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% per year, thus at the same rate as we did during the first Covid year, in 2020. A world reaching carbon neutrality is therefore a world with one extra Covid each year!
Technical progress alone will not manage to yield this decrease, and therefore it means a yearly contraction of the economy by 3 to 4%. This is what the Paris Agreement means.
Now, the Earth being finite, the only question is whether we immediately start with a huge effort of moderation, or we wait for the shortages and pathologies to regulate the system on our behalf. We need to ask ourselves this question. And, in this context, nuclear energy helps. Doing without it increases the difficulty of solving this global problem. The various scenarios set out by RTE (T.N. : France’s electricity infrastructure provider) offers a fairly simple conclusion: the lower the amount of nuclear energy is, the more complicated we make it for ourselves.
Should we develop small modular reactors (SMR) ?
Will SMRs become a gamechanger in the next thirty years? The answer is no. The gamechanger is to extend the lifetime of current power plants – and thus not to close them too early for non-technical reasons, as it was done for the Fessenheim plant – and to start the construction of high-power units as soon as possible. If the French cannot build them anymore, we can get help from others! The Chinese and the Russians would certainly be delighted by that. But it would be better to be able to rely on our own abilities.
How should we consider a European power network when each country has chosen such different paths?
Each country is going its own way while relying on the others to rescue them if it ever turns out that they backed the wrong horse. The Belgians would like to shut down their nuclear power plants while relying on electricity imports when need should arise, a bit like the Spanish. The Germans rely on Russian gas. In the RTE report, the more we rely on renewables, the more gambles we take. The first gamble is to have larger and stronger interconnections with our neighbors. This means building physical infrastructures, but also assumes that the neighbors will have dispatchable production ready to be activated as soon as we need to import electricity.
There also is the question of energy storage: batteries alone cannot help us: we need synthetic gas setups, which have very poor efficiencies (one needs to produce 3 to 4 times more electricity than what will be available after storage). We then need to install huge capacities since solar and wind energies are rarely available at their full output. However, as of now, the installation rate of wind power in Germany and the UK has decreased compared to the maximum it reached in 2018. The less nuclear energy we produce, the bigger the risk is of not managing with renewables alone, with a potential consequence of no electricity for some consumers at certain moments.
Let us remember that the modern world is completely dependent on electricity. Without it, there is no more money, no more transports, no more communication… A world in which the predictability of electricity becomes weaker is a disorganizing world. If we take the gamble of not pushing forward with nuclear energy as strongly as we can and rely mostly on renewables, and if ever that gamble did not succeed – and there are many factors working against it – you end up with a less supplied and more unstable world.
Can we expect prices of renewable energy (RE) to decrease further?
Since the price of renewable energy has dropped significantly, it is tempting to think that we will be able to install it everywhere. But to rely on renewable energy, you need a lot of metal, a lot of cement, a lot of land. Today’s price does not tell you anything about the physical requirements of tomorrow. RE price has gone down only because we have harnessed the world’s fossil fuel supplies to produce solar panels and wind turbines. But if tomorrow there is no more oil to operate the mines, no more coal to refine metals, no more container ships to bring solar panels from China, I am not so sure that the price of RE will remain the same. Money is the tree that hides the forest. We need to go back to the physical criteria to take a stand on the capacity – or lack of it – of doing things.
But do we still know how to build nuclear power plants?
When we had to build the EPR plant in Flamanville, we were a little rusty because it was something that had not been done for a long time. So it took longer than expected and cost more. Knowing how fast you can go is a matter of physical assets, skills, and context. In today’s “peaceful” world, for instance, it takes several years of preliminary studies & procedures before deciding to build a reactor. In a smooth-running world, this is not a problem in itself, because there is no penalty for wasting time. But if you change the paradigm, when you need to get organized to escape a mortal peril in the relatively short-term, waiting comes with risks. You then have to speed things up, acquire the skills faster.
Should we also take into account the price of electricity for consumers at the end of the value chain?
I have never made the price of energy for consumers my hobbyhorse as, compared to the societal service it provides, energy costs next to nothing. Some people talk about the competitiveness of the economy, but this is only a luxury of people who think that we do not have more pressing issues, which is not my case.