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World: Nuclear Industry Seeking Role In Climate Talks

  • Tony Wesolowsky

During the two weeks of international talks in The Hague on world climate conditions that end Friday, the nuclear-energy industry has been seeking to win a role for itself in devising long- term energy policy to combat climatic changes. Environmentalists and others say the nuclear industry should not be involved in the fight against what they call "global warming."

Prague, 22 Nov 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Hague meeting is aimed at working out the means to meet environmental goals set out three years ago at another climate conference, held in Kyoto, Japan.

Participants at the earlier conference agreed in a formal protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent of their 1990 level. Gases like carbon dioxide and methane are widely believed -- but not conclusively proved -- to be warming the earth's surface.

The nuclear energy industry and its supporters say it should be a part of any plan to reduce greenhouse gases. David Waller, the deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- or IAEA -- told The Hague conference Monday that nuclear energy now provides 16 percent of the world's electricity. In so doing, he said, the nuclear power cuts carbon emissions by 600 million tons annually.

Robert Priddle, the head of the Paris-based International Energy Agency -- or IEA -- also praised the use of nuclear energy at the conference. He said "much can be achieved [in] extending the life of nuclear plants."

Far from everyone is convinced, however, that nuclear energy should figure in the fight against greenhouse gases. Tony Juniper is representing Friends of the Earth International -- an environmental non-governmental organization -- at The Hague. He told RFE/RL:

"Just because nuclear power doesn't produce carbon dioxide in large quantities, doesn't make it a good solution to climate change -- not least because it's a very expensive solution to reducing 'co2' emissions."

But those who support nuclear power argue that it should be up to each country to develop its own energy mix, including nuclear. Guy Meskens is attending The Hague conference as a representative of the European Nuclear Society, a supporter of nuclear power. He tells our correspondent:

"We think that -- given the fact that there is an energy demand which will rise significantly in the next decade, especially in the developing countries -- we need a balanced mix of all energy sources, including coal, oil, gas, renewables, and nuclear. And every country in fact should have the right to decide for itself what should be in this balanced energy mix."

To give countries their choice, the nuclear industry is seeking to have nuclear power included under the Kyoto protocol's flexible trading mechanisms. These are devices that were agreed upon in Japan three years ago to help meet the greenhouse gas emission targets.

One of them, the Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, would allow industrialized nations to earn what is called "credits" in meeting their own targets at home by pursuing projects in developing countries. The projects would aim to control, limit or avoid greenhouse gas emissions, and also contribute to sustainable development.

Another Kyoto device, the Joint Implementation Mechanism, is very much like the CDM. But it covers developed nations, including the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe.

Supporting the nuclear-energy option for climate control are countries with active nuclear industries, including Japan, the United States, France, and Canada. China also backs the option, seeing nuclear energy as a viable means of meeting its growing energy needs. But the European Union does not want nuclear energy included as a possible means of meeting the Kyoto targets. Two months ago, EU environmental ministers drew up a list of what they called "clean technologies" to counter global warming. The list did not include nuclear projects.

Over the past several years, the EU has gown increasingly unfriendly to nuclear energy. Today, 14 of its 15 member-states -- France is the exception -- either do not have any nuclear reactors, intend to phase out nuclear power or have no plans to build new reactors in the foreseeable future.

The stakes for the nuclear industry are high at The Hague. This is not only due to the great new commercial opportunities that would arise should nuclear energy be formally recognized as a means of increasing clean energy development. It is also because the exclusion of nuclear energy from the Kyoto protocol would raise further political and environmental doubts over a technology already in decline in much of the developed world. Environmentalist Juniper explains:

"The nuclear industry has come to the climate change negotiations in recent years because it sees here a potential lifeline. In many countries, the public subsidies for nuclear have been either reduced or cut off because of the massive public costs invested in order to manage waste and to clean up after nuclear accidents and what have you."

Backers of nuclear energy deny it has come to the world climate talks in an effort to save their industry. Meskens of the European Nuclear Society says:

"Some pressure groups are blaming us that we are kind of jumping on the co2 train as a last effort to save nuclear. But it is not true. Even if nuclear is explicitly excluded out of the CDM, it is just business as usual as far as the ongoing projects are concerned."

Critics say the nuclear business, with its attendant exorbitant costs -- from construction, waste disposal and storage, and decommissioning -- is hardly the option the poor southern hemisphere should be pursuing. Proponents say the choice should be left to each nation. The debate continues.