TCS Daily

Small Nukes, Good Nukes

By Roger Bate - September 4, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - The much-beleaguered US delegation managed to indirectly include nuclear power into text promoting renewable energy at the Sustainable Development Conference. Remi Permentier, head of Greenpeace, called the move, 'absolutely outrageous', saying the language proposed 'would open the way to increasing nuclear power'. But when the final text emerged the US had won a considerable victory over the Europeans by its inclusion.

At a time when nearly every head of state, from UK Prime Minister Blair to Senegal President's Abdoulaye Wade, is promoting sustainable energy targets, the fact that nuclear power might be considered renewable shocked many of the delegates. The paragraph in question, in the main conference text, is supposed to boost solar and wind energy, but was amended by the US and a few oil producing G77 countries. The Brazilian delegate Suami Coelho said 'the problem with this paragraph is that it doesn't specifically exclude nuclear', it has an open-ended reference to 'energy technologies'. A US delegation spokesman had earlier said opaquely that 'it is fair to say we advocate all forms of energy technologies', which started the whole debate about nuclear on Sunday.

Most green NGOs say that nuclear is not only unsafe but produces waste that lasts for millennia. Others disagree saying that fewer people die from the use of nuclear than from mining coal or drilling for oil. Furthermore, pro-technology advocates say, nuclear does not contribute to global warming. In some countries like France it provides a majority of power, and around the world it provides about 7%. But is it relevant for developing countries?

The answer, like so many at this conference, is complicated.

According to South African NGO energy specialist Kelvin Kemm 'developing countries are often incapable of widely using coal, oil and gas because they do not have the wealth to build significant power grid systems, even when they can afford a power station'. And it's the grids that are required to transmit electricity from these fossil fuel power stations to towns and villages across Africa. As a result, rural communities often use biomass fuels such as wood and dung. In small amounts these biomass fuels are sustainable, but NGOs are concerned that for large communities they are environmentally destructive, since they lead to deforestation. They also pose health hazards when burned in rural houses. Over 4 million people die from respiratory diseases, which are exacerbated by indoor fires.

As a result, Dr Kemm and many energy economists discuss the advantage for developing countries of using fuels that are less harmful to environment and health, but don't require grid systems. In an amazing example of unanimity all NGOs think that there is room for technologies like solar as a solution in this regard. The discrepancy comes in the scope of these fuels in the future. Many of the pro-market NGOs see 'solar as a 'bridge fuel', that will fall by the way side when poor countries get richer'. At that point these countries will develop grids and then use whatever fuel sources are most economic, which they say, is likely to be fossil fuels. The anti-globalisation NGOs say that solar should not be just a bridge fuel but is the fuel of the future.

Into this discussion of technologies appropriate to Africa came the prospect of nuclear energy. Dr Kemm suggests that nuclear power could be a bridge fuel as well for these nations. New forms of nuclear power station, which are being developed in South Africa, are, he claims, inherently safe.

The Pebble Bed Reactor, as it's known, is much smaller in size than 'old style nuclear power stations and produces the energy requirement of a small town. It also can be shut down by satellite, should a terrorist attack the plant' he says. He admits it's an expensive fuel, and not available for rural areas, only towns, but claims the technology is affordable with aid. Although it may well be too expensive for the rest of Africa, it is being exported to Europe, the US, China and even Cuba.

The nuclear lobby is obviously arguing vehemently that this technology should be considered renewable because it could massively expand their markets. And they go further than Dr Kemm and argue that nuclear is not only a bridge fuel for Africa, but the solution to supposed climate change.

Experienced conference delegates were sanguine last night about the
American-inserted paragraph, in the end 'renewables will increase regardless of the nuclear inclusion', said one exhausted European delegate. Of course the green groups are dismayed. 'This proposal, which could be seen as opening the door for more nukes, is making a farce of this entire summit' said Greenpeace's Parmentier. Kemm, along with the pro-market NGOs, argue that Africans should decide what fuels mix they use in the future, and not anti-technology green groups.

Dr Roger Bate is Director of the International Policy Network.

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