Nuclear energy is in last place in the race against climate change

Huge delays and cost overruns totalling billions for nuclear reactors under construction in Finland and France are once again demonstrating that nuclear power is no match for renewables in the fight against climate change. Since construction started on these two reactors global capacity of renewables like wind energy and solar power has grown at rates between 15% to 50% a year – way ahead of even the Chinese economy. In the same period, new solar energy plants alone have added more electricity generation to the grid than nuclear plants.

The fight against climate change is a race against time. If we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences of rising global temperatures then strong and meaningful action must be taken immediately. The world needs to forget about building nuclear reactors that are massively expensive, dangerous and take too long to build, and embrace safe, cheap renewable energy and energy efficiency that are safe, quickly established and getting cheaper every day.

Enough solar energy hits the Earth in one hour to give us power for a whole year. We’re never going to run out of wind. Solar power is already cheaper than nuclear power and will soon be cheaper than oil power. Look at Google building the world’s largest wind farm.

However, the nuclear industry claims that nuclear power is a vital part of the energy mix needed to beat climate change. The disastrous problem with that idea is that despite the squandering of massive amounts of time, money and resources the nuclear industry is showing no sign of urgency in the battle against global warming.

There is, and has been, much talk about the new generation of nuclear reactors that are somehow going to miraculously spring up across the world in the next ten years and save us from climate change. The news that is emerging from the nuclear industry this week shows this to be a fantasy.

The leader in this so-called Third Generation of nuclear reactors is the European (or Evolutionary) Pressurised Reactor (EPR), designed by French nuclear giant, AREVA. The EPR, if any are ever completed, will be the largest nuclear reactor the world has ever seen. Three EPRs are currently being built worldwide at Olkiluoto in Finland, Flamanville in France and Taishan in China. News coming from the Finnish and French construction sites this week is alarming to say the least. New problems have been revealed in the two projects that were already billions of euros over budget and years behind schedule.

Finland’s EPR was supposed to begin operation in 2009 but – because of delays, safety concerns and lack of proper oversight – will not be working until 2013 at the earliest. Its initial cost of three billion euros has almost doubled. Now we hear there are yet more, new problems: despite being under construction since 2005, the reactor’s design is not yet complete. If the design does not pass inspection, yet more money and time will be wasted making any necessary changes.

There have also been yet more worrying lapses in safety procedures and quality control of the reactors safety systems including the backup cooling systems (these are the systems that failed at Fukushima in Japan causing the nuclear disaster we are now witnessing). Work is being carried out without the required plans or tests and there is a lack of effective supervision. All this means significant delays to the reactors completion. Remember that race against time we mentioned.

Over at Flamanville in France things are no better. We were promised that lessons would be learned from Finland’s disastrous experience but once again we see the nuclear industry’s stubborn refusal to learn those lessons. We see almost exactly the same problems in France as in Finland.

French energy giant EdF, which is building the EPR at Flamanville, has announced this week that instead of being operational in 2012
the reactor will not now be ready until 2016 at the earliest. The cost of the project has rocketed from 3.3 billion euros to six billion. Tragically, two workers have also been killed during construction.

Just look at these costs – lives, time, money, energy and resources. We cannot afford to waste any of them. Think what could have been achieved if they had been devoted to renewable energy and energy saving projects. Perhaps the race against climate change wouldn’t be as urgent as it is now.

Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Kuwait are already leading the way in abandoning nuclear power. Japan’s Prime Minister Kan has called for his country to look to a nuclear-free future in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Germany already has 370,000 people employed in its renewable energy industry. They’re way ahead in the race to beat climate change. It’s not too late for the rest of the world to catch them but time is short.

These EPR reactor projects in France and Finland – along with plans to build new reactors everywhere else – should be abandoned immediately and priorities fully devoted to safe, clean and sustainable methods of energy production.

Justin McKeating, Greenpeace,