By Stephen Tindale and Suzanna Hinson
“EU member states with pro-nuclear policies risk undermining Europe’s 2020 Strategy on climate and energy goals, an academic study has found.”
Maxine Perella: “Pro-nuclear EU countries ‘slower to tackle GHGs or boost renewables’ – study.” ENDS Europe, 24 August 2016
The study referred to is “Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence?” by Andrew Lawrence, Benjamin Sovacool and Andrew Stirling, from the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Relations.
The authors consider data from all European countries. They divide them into three main categories: always anti-nuclear (13 countries); now anti-nuclear (7); pro-nuclear (8). The headline conclusions are that:
– The always-anti countries have reduced their emissions by an average of 6% since 2005, and had increased renewable energy sources to 26%.
– The now-anti countries reduced emissions on average by 11% while expanding renewables to 19%.
– In pro-nuclear countries, greenhouse gas emissions have increased since 2005 by an average of 3%, and only 16% of energy is from renewables.
– On the basis of these figures, the authors conclude:”[The] intensities of national commitment to nuclear power tend to be inversely related to degrees of success in achieving EU climate policy goals.”
The study was published in the journal Climate Policy, so will have been peer reviewed. It deserves to be taken seriously – and has already been widely discussed. However, the authors’ conclusions are, in our view, based on two significant mistakes:
– The categories of pro- and anti-nuclear are too broad and do not compare like with like;
– Reduction of greenhouse gases and promotion of renewable energy are presented together as a single objective. They are not.
The authors group countries together into always anti-nuclear, now anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear. To be in the ‘now anti-‘ category, a country’s government must have a policy to decommission existing nuclear power stations and not allow replacements. Germany clearly belongs in this category. Does Sweden, which the authors also place there? In 1980 Swedes voted in a referendum to phase out nuclear power, though no timetable was set. Since then Swedish policy on nuclear has been, to use the diplomatic word used by the World Nuclear Association, “ambivalent”. In 2010, at the behest of a centre-right government, the Swedish parliament lifted the ban on new nuclear construction. In 2014 the Green Party entered a centre-left coalition, so new nuclear was off the political agenda for a while. But on 10 June this year (so shortly after the publication of the Climate Policy article) the government lifted its moratorium on nuclear new build, and also reduced the tax on nuclear. Sweden is not, therefore, an anti-nuclear country.
The countries which the authors do place in their pro-nuclear category are Finland, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the UK: countries with very different economic and political circumstances. We do not believe that it makes analytical sense to compare western European countries – established democracies with strong economies – with ex-communist central and eastern European ones. And the existing energy mix is also a determining factor in a country’s attitude to climate action. The reason the Polish government opposes strong greenhouse gas reduction targets is not because it wants to build a nuclear power station; it is because Polish society and economy are currently so dependent on coal.
If one narrows the category to western European countries, how do pro-and anti-nuclear countries compare? In terms of greenhouse gas reductions since 2005, the figures given in the Climate Policy article are:
|Country||Authors’ category||Greenhouse gas reduction since 2005|
Denmark and Ireland, the countries that have reduced emissions most since 2005, have always been anti-nuclear. But two examples do not constitute a proven link. Beyond these two, the figures do not establish correlation, let alone causation. In joint second on -16% are one country from each of the three categories. Anti-nuclear Germany and pro-nuclear Britain and France have each reduced emissions by 14% since 2005.
Performance on renewable energy
The authors then consider how well countries are performing on renewable energy. They mention the drawbacks of some renewable energy technologies, including large hydro and bioenergy, but nevertheless present single figures, covering all renewables, for each country. Bioenergy and nuclear can be used anywhere, but other renewables, especially hydro, are geographically dependent.
The figures for western European countries are given below. Again, there is no correlation between attitude to nuclear and performance on renewables.
|Country||Category||Percentage of energy from renewables (2013)|
|Sweden||Now anti (according to authors)||52%|
Sweden get about 40% of its electricity from hydro; Finland 18%. Finland got 16% of electricity from bioenergy in 2013, Sweden 6%. Both countries also use bioenergy extensively for heating. They have strong criteria for minimising the biodiversity impact of biomass, but not for assessing the carbon footprint. EU rules on the carbon footprint of bioenergy apply only to biofuels, not to biomass. Bioenergy is necessary, particularly for heating and for transport. But not all bioenergy expansion is desirable. Being renewable is not the same as being good for the climate. Similarly, large-scale hydro, has some severe consequences to habitats, erosion and hydrology meaning though it is good for the climate, it is not necessarily good for the environment.
Are renewables better than nuclear?
Does it matter whether greenhouse gas reductions are achieved through expansion of renewables, or through other measures? It does not matter to the global climate. In our view, the scale of the climate crisis is such that we need rapidly to move beyond arguments about which low-carbon technology to support and accepted that all are required. (Our next report will be on this issue.) But the way in which emissions are reduced appears to matter to the Climate Policy authors. Professor Andy Stirling, said about his report: “By suppressing better ways to meet climate goals, evidence suggests entrenched commitments to nuclear power may actually be counterproductive.”
Academics should always define their terms. So we have a question for Professor Sterling: better in what sense?
Those in the scientific and industrial community have long accepted the fact that nuclear power produces zero-carbon energy once constructed. Nuclear has similar life-cycle greenhouse emissions to wind and has a considerably lower carbon footprint than solar does, even when mining and waste disposal are included.
Many politicians have taken much longer to accept this with nuclear more often being grouped with fossil fuels than with renewable energies. But now nuclear is starting to get the climate recognition it deserves. The State of New York Public Service Commission has declared that the state must include nuclear in its Clean Energy Standard portfolio. This represents a major step forward and hopefully the start of greater acceptance of nuclear power as a future friendly, sustainable form of energy. It is however, just a start.
As the Paris conference highlighted, nuclear is still struggling. Energy for Humanity reported over the Paris COP that since 2001, nuclear energy has been explicitly excluded from climate mitigation strategies. This includes a ban on nuclear projects receiving financial assistance from the climate pact’s development mechanisms and significantly hinders both acceptance and deployment of nuclear.
Increasingly, high profile climate experts are speaking out to combat this stigma and support nuclear. At the Paris Climate Conference in December, Dr Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science said “the climate doesn’t care whether the electricity comes from a wind turbine or a nuclear reactor. The climate just cares about carbon”. Dr James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who brought climate change to the attention of the US government in the 1980s, argued, “it is wrong to pit renewables against nuclear power. We need all hands on deck.”
It must be hoped that New York is but the first step towards greater global acceptance of nuclear’s carbon credentials and that policy makers can revise their renewables-only pathways in favour of an ‘all of the above’ plan; reflecting the urgency and scale of today’s energy, environmental and climate challenges.