Copenhagen Days 6-7 (“A Nuclear Renaissance?”)

Monday, December 14 (Day 6)

When I arrived on the platform outside of the Bella Center this morning, something was noticeably different. There was a line, actually two lines, at least six people wide and hundreds of people deep! Everywhere I looked, from the doors leading into the Bella Center to the edges of both the train and bus stops, there were people waiting to pass through security and get their badges made. This massive influx of conference attendees was evidence of the arrival of party delegates and heads of state from around the world. To add to the chaos, rumor had it that the badge making machines broke, causing some individuals to have to wait outside in the freezing cold for up to 9 hours. As a youth NGO delegate, I had been told that I may no longer be allowed inside the Bella Center after Monday because there were apparently more delegates attending the conference than the facilities could hold. Looking at this line, I wondered whether I even wanted to try getting in during the second week at all. I decided to try my best to get into the center for one last day, while I still had the option. Luckily, I already had a badge, so a guard let me through the barrier gate, earning me a few nasty looks from the folks waiting for theirs.

Once I got inside the conference center, I made my way directly to the U.S. Center, where Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was scheduled to speak. I got in a very long line just before noon and was dismayed to find that it barely moved during the hour that I waited (the session started late). Because the small room was more than half-filled with press officials, they were allowing only one person per NGO to enter and only about 20 delegates got in total. I was forced, along with many others, to watch the event on the big screens outside of the U.S. Center. To highlight steps that the Obama Administration has already taken to progress the United States toward an efficient renewable energy future, Secretary Chu explained that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included an $80 billion "down payment" on a clean energy economy, which is expected to double renewable energy generating capacity in the U.S. by 2012.

Dr. Chu then announced the Climate REDI (Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative), a $350 million initiative for which the U.S. will provide $85 million to support programs like SLED, the Solar and LED Access Program, in developing countries. Other programs to receive funding through Climate REDI include the Super-efficient Equipment and Appliances Deployment (SAED) program, the Clean Energy Information Platform (CEIP) and the Scaling-up Renewable Energy Program (SREP), which invests in solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal and small hydro power projects, provides technical assistance and builds capacity for the installation and maintenance of renewable energy systems in developing countries. You can download Secretary Chu's Powerpoint presentation here, for more information about these and other initiatives being taken by the U.S. Department of Energy to address climate change.

After Secretary Chu's speech was over, I decided to attend a plenary session that sounded interesting.  I got there and waited, but the session never began. I only learned later that about 130 of the least developed and developing countries had walked out of the earlier plenary meetings that were being dominated by richer, developed countries, suspending official party negotiations. What was their reason for leaving? The official answer: while the G77-China bloc of developing countries was pushing for emissions reduction targets from developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012, the European Union, United States and other developed countries were promoting an alternative agreement that would replace the Kyoto Protocol altogether. This new plan was put together largely by European countries and the U.S. without input from developing countries, which many felt was undemocratic and biased in favor of richer nations. (Read the "Danish Text" leaked to the Guardian, or the official Draft text proposed by the United States.) Furthermore, many members of the G77-China bloc demanded dramatic increases in the amount of funding that they would receive from developed countries to support them in their adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development efforts. The suspension did not last long, however, and negotiations resumed later in the afternoon.

I took half an hour to sit in on the US-China Youth Workshop Press Conference. The youngest member of the China Youth Delegation, a girl still in high school–whose name I have regretfully forgotten–said that the responsibility of youth is to influence people's behavior. She gave an example of how she had told her father that he should not drive a car because it causes pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, and, as a result, her father sold his car and now rides a bike to work. I thought this was important because it reminds us that we are most influential with our friends and family and that change begins at home. We have the power to create more sustainable communities, but only by speaking our minds, changing our behavior, setting good examples, encouraging others to improve, supporting changes we wish to see and actually going out and making a real, positive difference. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

After the press conference, I attended a side event called "200 NGOs in Africa and Asia working for Sustainable Energy," hosted by the International Network for Sustainable Energy (INFORSE) and Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF). I enjoyed this session because it provided several examples of sustainable development projects being implemented on the ground, in communities where they are truly needed. Most of the projects highlighted used renewable energy technologies to alleviate poverty and provide a higher standard of living for community members. Technologies like solar ovens have helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as particulate emissions that cause respiratory illnesses, and prevent deforestation by using sunlight to directly heat food rather than burning wood to do so. In many cases, women are the primary beneficiaries from such projects because they lighten their immense daily workloads and help them accomplish what they previously thought was impossible, empowering them to participate in and even play leading roles in improving their communities. Projects like these are extremely important and demonstrably effective, but could benefit from development of regional and national plans to guide their implementation, as well as additional funding.

I'd made the most of my time in the Bella Center. Satisfied, I wandered
across the street for a salad made with organic greens and goat cheese
crostinis, drank a glass of Shiraz, caught the bus back to Jakob's and
went to sleep – one day older and one day wiser.

Tuesday, December 15 (Day 7)

I spent Tuesday morning catching up on work at Jakob's place. The weather had gotten much colder and icy rain was falling, so I enjoyed staying inside for a while where it was warm and dry. I headed to the Klimaforum around 6:00pm, after the sun had already gone down. I had forgotten my hat, so snowflakes were beginning to coat my forehead when I ran into McNair and Steven Cornish, a student from Morehouse College. I paused briefly to talk to them, and Steven kindly offered his glove to dry off my forehead. Despite the cold and the crowds, the people I have met here are doing a wonderful job of taking care of each other.

I wanted to attend the session on "A Nuclear Renaissance?," because I've heard arguments from many different perspectives on the costs, benefits and risks of nuclear energy, but felt that many of them were biased and didn't really have all the information. I had friends in college who were pursuing degrees in Nuclear and Radiological Engineering, and they would tell me that nuclear energy is the answer to all the world's energy problems. If I ever questioned them or mentioned an issue with nuclear power, they almost always dismissed my argument because they either felt that the benefits of nuclear far outweighed the costs or claimed that nuclear fusion would overcome all issues with fission, although fusion technology has not been proven feasible for use in a civilian setting in over 50 years of research. On the other side of the debate, I've found many environmentalists who are absolutely against the use of nuclear power for any reason. However, their reasons for rejecting nuclear technologies are often underdeveloped and sometimes completely misinformed. 

There are a few main arguments against nuclear power: first of all, nuclear plants in the United States and elsewhere use ridiculous amounts of water for plant cooling, sometimes as much as 11,000 gallons per second. Even if this water is returned to the source, the output water is 20-30oF higher than the rest of the water body, causing problems for cold-blooded aquatic species and often leading water to evaporate once it exits the plant. Another common argument against nuclear power is that it produces dangerous, radioactive waste that is very difficult and costly to store safely. The counterargument is that this waste could theoretically be recycled, or even launched into space, but neither of these has yet been practically demonstrated or proven. Then there is always the accusation that nuclear power and nuclear weapon technologies are too similar to be fully distinguished from each other, suggesting the proliferation of nuclear power also means proliferation of nuclear weapons. I've never heard this point refuted and it certainly wasn't refuted at this event. I assume that means it is true and relatively indisputable.

The first speaker was Dr. Lutz Mez, who currently serves as the Executive Director of the Environmental Policy Research Centre at the University of Berlin in Germany. Since the mid 70s, he has focused his research specifically on nuclear power and atomic technologies. He made four main points:

  • Capacity: the share of nuclear electricity in global total final energy consumption (TFEC) was only 2.47% in 2006, and possibly going down, since the number of reactors peaked in 2002 at 444. Because plants are decommissioned after about 40 years to avoid meltdowns, and NO new nuclear power plants went into operation in 2008 or 2009, Dr. Mez projected that nuclear power will make up a smaller and smaller share of TFEC as time goes on.
  • Workforce: there is a lack of a skilled and experienced workers to perpetuate nuclear energy safely into the future. He gave an example of the aging workforce at a major European energy
    corporation, EDF, to demonstrate that experienced nuclear engineers
    will be in short supply when the vast majority of nuclear industry
    employees retire over the course of the next decade. As of 2008, less than 20% of EDF employees were below the age of 35 and more than half of all employees were over the age of 45.
    Until very recently, the numbers of graduates receiving degrees in
    nuclear engineering were at all-time lows since nuclear technologies
    were invented for civilian use. The increase in degrees awarded in
    recent years can largely be attributed to the lack of major nuclear
    melt-downs like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the last couple of
    decades, as well as the energy crisis and concerns about carbon dioxide
    emissions.Regardless, the numbers of graduates are still small compared to those in the 1970s.
  • Cost: in the past, proponents of nuclear technologies have claimed that the
    electricity they produce is so cheap it doesn't even make sense to
    meter it.This was true only because of government subsidies, but the actual cost of building a new nuclear power plant is often 2-4 times the estimated cost. Looking at estimated vs. actual building costs in the past, one could reasonably estimate that the actual cost to build a new
    nuclear plant, if construction began tomorrow, would be in the range of
    $10,000-20,000+/kW and will most likely increase in the future. 
  • Carbon emissions: nuclear energy is not carbon neutral…  not even close! Greenhouse gases are released in the mining of uranium (much of which
    comes from countries like Canada and Australia), the transportation of
    uranium and the use of uranium as fuel in nuclear power plants. As the
    world uses more and more uranium, the quality of the supply will
    decrease and the cost will rise. With declining fuel quality comes a
    nearly exponential increase in the emissions produced from nuclear
    power plants. So an actual "Nuclear Renaissance" would not only
    cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but it poses a great
    economic risk in the long-term.
    (See this presentation that Dr. Mez made a few years ago for more details on any of these statistics.)

The next speaker was George Monbiot, a British writer who is highly esteemed in the environmental community and a regular columnist for the Guardian. Mr. Monbiot was not speaking as an expert on nuclear energy or nuclear energy policy. He spoke as a voice of experience from his real-world encounters with the darker side of the nuclear industry. He discussed his journey back and forth between supporting and rejecting nuclear energy as a sustainable form of electricity generation, giving examples of why nuclear energy is not and never will be sustainable and concluded with his opinion about the role that nuclear power should play in the future. His position on nuclear energy, as stated at this time, is basically that it should ONLY be used in cases where the only other choice is to build a coal plant. In every other case, renewable energy is the safer, cleaner, more cost-effective and less environmentally destructive choice. Nuclear power is better than coal for several reasons, including that it (currently) emits less greenhouse gases, pollution and radioactive waste into the atmosphere than conventional coal plants.

Mr. Monbiot also shared two striking examples of why nuclear waste disposal is a major concern, despite the nuclear industry's claims that all radioactive waste is disposed of in safe, effective and just ways. The first example he gave referred to the Scottish nuclear power plant, built in the 1950s, at Dounreay:

"Before the first reactor at Dounreay was completed, the operators –
the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – bored a tunnel under the
seabed, through which its liquid effluent would be discharged. In order
to remove the spoil, UKAEA dug a 200-ft shaft a few yards behind the
cliffs. Though this hole was unsealed, though groundwater could flow in
and out, and though coastal erosion could pull the whole thing down
into the sea within 100 years, in 1959 the British government gave
UKAEA permission to use this shaft as a dump for radioactive materials.

1977 the shaft exploded, blowing the lid off and scattering hot
particles. It would not be strictly true to say that the incident was
covered up. After rumours of the accident reached the press, UKAEA
issued a news release entitled "Minor incident at solid waste
facility". The word "explosion" was not mentioned."

The second example ismore recent and even more shocking. Mr. Monbiot told us the news of how a shipwreck containing nuclear waste was discovered off the coast of Italy.

"Detectives found the ship after a tip-off from a mafioso. It appears to
have been carrying drums of nuclear waste when the mafia used
explosives to scuttle it. The informant… said his clan
had been paid £100,000 to get rid of it. What makes this story
interesting is that the waste appears to be Norwegian. Norway is famous
for its tough environmental laws, but a shipload of nuclear waste
doesn't go missing without someone high-up looking the other way.

prosecutors are investigating the scuttling of a further 41 ships. But
most of them weren't sunk, like Fonti's vessel, off the coast of Italy;
they were lost off the coast of Somalia. When the great tsunami of 2004
struck the Somali coast, it dumped and smashed open thousands of
barrels on the beaches and in villages up to 10km inland. According to
the United Nations, they contained clinical waste from western
hospitals, heavy metals, other chemical junk and nuclear waste. People
started suffering from unusual skin infections, bleeding at the mouth,
acute respiratory infections and abdominal hemorrhages. The barrels
had been dumped in the sea, a UN spokesman said, for one obvious
reason: it cost European companies around $2.50 a tonne to dispose of
the waste this way, while dealing with them properly would have cost
"something like $1,000 a tonne."
On the seabed off Somalia lies
Europe's picture of Dorian Gray: the skeleton in the closet of the
languid new world we have made.

"The only people who have sought
physically to stop this dumping are Somali pirates. Most of them take
to the seas only for blood and booty; but some have formed coastal
patrols to prevent over-fishing and illegal dumping by foreign fleets.
Some of the vessels being protected from pirates by Combined Task Force
151, the rich world's policing operation in the Gulf of Aden, have come
to fish illegally or dump toxic waste. The warships make no attempt
to stop them."

No matter how strict the regulations or how safely nuclear plants are supposed to dispose of their waste, the cost of doing this is prohibitive and will even drive power companies in the most environmentally-conscious nations to take advantage of less expensive, often illegal and immoral methods of waste disposal. Stricter regulations actually increase the rate of occurrence of illegal dumping, leaving no viable options for ensuring proper disposal of nuclear waste other than to not create it in the first place. This point speaks to the problems of regulation in other areas of environmental policy, as well. I'm not suggesting that we eliminate laws that have been put in place to limit the amount of harmful pollutants released into our environment. However, the fact remains that many corporations will do just about anything to avoid paying the costs of compliance with such regulations. We really need to look at ways of incorporating externalities and costs to ecosystems and life on Earth into the financial costs of building polluting power plants and other monstrosities that aim to profit by taking vast amounts of resources from the world and giving back only "waste." We need to change our financial incentives structures, since that seems to be the most common way of making decisions these days (we should probably be working on that, too, but it would undoubtedly take some time). 

To start, we could eliminate the government subsidies for coal, nuclear and fossil fuels that burden taxpayers and create a false sense of stable, low prices on power bills and at the gas pump. Then we could look at ways of funding environmental protection and restoration funds by creating taxes on the extraction of resources, excessive use of energy and creation of waste. Ideally this would serve as a catalyst for businesses to recycle, reduce or eliminate their waste stream and conserve energy and water. We must still be very vigilant in preventing companies and governments from finding adverse ways around such taxes, but this seems much more feasible than trying to monitor and regulate every act of waste disposal of every major organization on Earth. Some may fear that companies will try to pass these taxes along to customers, which is certainly possible and even likely. However, this will also offer an incentive to consumers to purchase less expensive (or at least competitively priced) products made from recycled materials with fewer resources, energy and waste.

Perhaps I'm just being an idealist. I am not an expert in any of these areas. However, from my perspective this is a simpler and more realistic plan for addressing environmental injustices. I would love to hear your comments, criticisms and alternative ideas–feel free to contribute below. My next post will be my last, so look forward to a little more synthesis tomorrow!