October 2000

The future of nuclear power as far as 2050: Neither clean, nor cheap

Vert-Contact, n°579, 14-20 October 2000

[Posted 26/10/2000]

At the end of July 2000, three experts from different fields, Mr. Charpin (Commissioner for National Plan), Mr. Dessus (Director of Ecodev programme at the CNRS) and Mr. Pellat (High-Commissioner for Atomic Energy) submitted a report to the French prime minister containing an economic forecast for nuclear power up to the year 2050. We take an analytical look...

Although the predominant "technocratic" mind-set still associates nuclear power with progress, with a bright future, and with safe and cheap energy, the very existence of this report is a sharp rebuttal of the arguments of nuclear's unconditional supporters. In fact, its main conclusion is that nuclear power has no decisive advantages from either the economic or environmental points of view.

1) Is nuclear power a good response to the enhanced greenhouse effect?

If a "good response" means a solution that protects our future, the answer is, "no". In all cases, low-electricity-consumption scenarios are those that emit the least CO2, regardless of the way the energy is produced. Furthermore, nuclear power includes an enormous "risk cost": one second before the Chernobyl accident the calculable cost of electricity for the Ukraine seemed reasonable. One second after the event, the loss in economic terms was colossal (unusable land, health costs, etc.).

2) Is the true cost of reprocessing and/or storage take into account in the report?

Yes and no. Although nuclear power does not produce CO2 emissions, it is not clean: it produces waste, sorted — partially — at La Hague. The report indicates that carrying on with reprocessing is the most costly scenario. It is true that reprocessing and use of MOX reduces the quantity of long-lived high-level waste, but only slightly (-17 per cent for the amount of plutonium) and at exorbitant cost (a total cost of 147 billion Francs, i.e. a cost of 1.3 billion Francs for every tonne of heavy metal saved!). Furthermore, this choice leads to complications in waste management. France will not be able to avoid a national plan for waste management that includes storage of spent MOX fuels. It is regrettable that the report does not examine the possibility of stopping reprocessing in 2002. This will have to be considered one day. And finally, the costs of waste and decommissioning are included, that of potential accidents is not.

3) Is nuclear power cheaper?

No. In all cases scenarios including effective control of electricity demand are, globally, better value than high-consumption scenarios. Of course, the investment in nuclear power has already been made, and it would be sensible to capitalise on it for as long as possible. But the report also indicates very high operating costs: as much as 45 per cent of the price per kWh.

4) And what about independence of supply?

The analyses of the Charpin-Dessus-Pellat mission relate only to France, a regrettable limitation. Paradoxically, they show clearly that, in spite of the scale of its installed base of nuclear power stations, France is not far ahead of its neighbours. The tired mantra of France's independence of energy supply does not take account of the present international context (liberalising of electricity markets, fluctuations in prices of fossil fuels and money markets) and no longer has a great deal of meaning. Furthermore, a recent meeting of OSPAR, in Copenhagen, requested (with the exception of France and the UK) an end to reprocessing. And finally, the underlying concept which has, until now, provided a basis for the view of nuclear power's supporters is outdated. Nuclear power was part of a vision for the future based on "abundance", whereas today everything points to management and energy efficiency as being the right solution, placing the problem in its true context: that of the long term and of sustainability for future generations.

5) Is the question of renewal of power stations raised?

Yes, and the authors' response is unambiguous: there is no urgency! It is even possible to extend the life of the existing power plants and this would be economically advantageous. The question of the true benefits of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) is also clearly laid on the table, but as a political choice not a technological option.

The "Greens" have (rightly) criticised economic calculations that are very conservative and pro-nuclear. But this is precisely what lends so much weight to the work of these experts based on figures provided by the nuclear lobby. The report deals only summarily with use of renewable energies, but this was not its purpose. The information it gives does not therefore exclude possible allocations of research and development grants for alternative energy sources. The inevitable recourse to nuclear power is now an illusion which forms part of history.

Roland Lagarde
Technical advisor to the
Ministry of Spatial Planning and

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