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Thursday, 8 March 2012

Will Nuclear Power Europe's Future?

Gilles Merritt flanked by Jo Leinen and Patrick Moore
Last night’s Debating Europe debate on the future of nuclear energy in Europe raised many interesting issues that Europe will have to consider in tackling its energy needs. Moderated by Gilles Merritt, Secretary General of Friends of Europe, the panellists were Patrick Moore, arguing in favour of nuclear energy, and MEP Jo Leinen arguing against.

Moore was co-founder of Greenpeace and is currently co-Chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, Honorary Chairman of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy Canada and Chair and Chief Scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.  MEP Jo Leinen is former Chair of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and has been a prominent spokesperson in the past for the German anti-nuclear movement.

Moore opened the debate by arguing that accidents resulting from mining, hydroelectric dams and fossil fuel consumption (through its effects on air quality) kill far more people than nuclear accidents.  He stated that no deaths had ever resulted from nuclear accidents and that nuclear plants are among “the safest places on earth”.

That is quite a bold statement to make considering that a conservative WHO estimate of deaths resulting from the Chernobyl accident alone is 4,000 people.  Independent estimates go much higher.  In Chernobyl, Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, published by The New York Academy of Sciences in 2010, scientists concluded, based on publicly available medical data, that between 1986 and 2004, 985,000 people died as a result of the disaster.  I also wonder if families of the dead Japanese workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant would concur with Moore.

Jo Leinen countered that “A capacity for mass destruction is inherent in nuclear technology,” whether the cause of the disaster is natural or man-made.  Noting that private investment in nuclear plants peaked in 1989, the German MEP said that nuclear power as a percentage of Europe’s overall energy sources is declining.  Currently, nuclear generates 13% of the EU’s electricity.  Focussing on France, which is home to 58 of Europe’s 143 nuclear plants, Leinen claimed that all French nuclear power plants are in need of upgrades to meet minimal safety requirements and called on the EU to “harmonise regulation on nuclear safety, the dismantling of installations and waste management.”

While Patrick Moore promoted increased investment in nuclear power as the answer to Europe’s energy gap, Jo Leinen said the current transition to a low-carbon economy requires “increased energy efficiency, further breakthroughs in renewable technologies and, as a buffer, natural gas.”  Moore is adamant that Germany’s investment in solar, wind and other renewable technologies is “breaking the bank, mere window dressing while the country’s substantial energy output will continue to come from fossil fuels.”

Leinen rejected Moore’s claim that “renewable energy is too expensive and destroys more wealth than it creates” by emphasising that investment in renewable energy has been a boon for Germany, not a bust.  He called instead for “decentralising the energy system.  We need to break down the concentration of the energy market to allow innovative technologies into the market.”

Moore castigated the inherent contradiction of Germany increasing its fossil fuel consumption in order to meet its energy needs, all the while claiming that it is concerned with lowering its carbon footprint.  In the wake of the Fukushima accident, the German government announced that it will phase out nuclear power altogether by 2022.  But Moore claims that this decision was originally made back in 2002, when the Schroder government announced the construction of more gas and coal power plants to replace nuclear power.

The big question here appears to be whether concerns for the safety of nuclear power supersede concerns of rising carbon emissions?  The German government apparently thinks so.  A show of hands from the debate’s audience both before and after the speakers had their say suggests the public thinks otherwise and that nuclear power will have a say in Europe’s future.

Post by Neil Bradley

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