In discussing our recent post on nuclear energy in Europe, we received some criticism on Facebook for being too “biased against renewable energies”. Never ones to shy away from debate, we asked our commenter to expand on his criticism so we could take it to an expert for reaction. Here’s what he said:
‘significant technology gains that don’t exist right now’ in the renewables sector are much more likely to occur than revolutionary technology improvements that nuclear technology would need to achieve to keep the triumphalistic rhetoric about chimerical “nuclear fusion” the nuclear lobby has been [spouting] for last 30 years now.
We took this to Professor Paul Ekins, head of the Environment Group at the Policy Studies Institute, for his comment:
I think I would agree with that because we haven’t just ‘talked’ about fusion and fission, we have spent enormous sums of money on researching them. Overall budgets on research into renewables pale into insignificance when you compare them with the decades of support nuclear has had with fairly modest gains in cost-reduction. In fact, all the evidence suggests fission reactors are more expensive now than before, which is in stark contrast to the progress of renewables.
The UK research council is now saying fusion will only be viable by 2080 – so it’s not even 30 years away, it’s more like 50 or 60. If you look at what fusion and fission have achieved per pound invested, the return on renewables has been very much higher. Furthermore, because renewable technologies are newer, there might still be stones unturned in terms of research. While that’s not impossible with nuclear, the longer one researches a topic without success, the less likely there is something to find.
However, Prof. Ekins also cautioned against ruling out nuclear energy too hastily – especially if there’s nothing in the short-term to replace it with.
There’s probably no worse outcome than no energy in an advanced industrial society. To the extent that countries can meet their energy needs without nuclear, it’s probably a good thing that they do so. Fukushima was a wake-up call that this is a dangerous form of energy, it also confirms that the nuclear industry is not as transparent as the amount of danger it poses warrants. I think it’s very encouraging that Germany – despite being the most important manufacturing-based economy in Europe – believes it can create the energy it needs through renewables. If it succeeds (and I still think there is an ‘if’ about that), then I think that will indeed be a very inspiring example to the rest of Europe.
Italy, on the other hand, has shown much less ability to achieve in terms of moving to renewables, so I think just extrapolating policy for the rest of the continent from expressions of public opinion is a bit dangerous. I think countries will want to ensure they can generate enough energy. If they can do that without nuclear, it’s probably a good thing.
Ekins argues, therefore, that a move away from nuclear would be preferable – with the caveat that not all countries are ready to make the jump in the short-term. As Will Pearson pointed out when we interviewed him, Germany is likely to have to make up its energy shortfall from nuclear with coal and gas and, in addition, an increased reliance on energy imports (including imports of nuclear energy from France).
Is Europe right to reject nuclear energy, then? Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have any better ideas for Europe’s energy policy? Send us in your comments and ideas in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
Paul Ekins is Professor of Sustainable Development at Keele University and Head of the Environment Group at the Policy Studies Institute. He was a prominent member of the UK Green Party in the 1970s and 80s.