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Nuclear energy struggles to find its voice at COP21 conference

Guillaume Souvent, AFP | Archival picture shows the Civaux Nuclear Power Plant in Western France on September 22, 2015

France relies on nuclear power for around 75 percent of its electricity needs. So why is nobody talking about nuclear at the big environmental summit hosted by Paris?


special correspondent at the COP 21 climate conference

The huge French pavilion that was built for the COP 21 climate conference includes over a dozen spacious stands showcasing France's leadership in various fields of science, technology, education and ecology. But nowhere does the pavilion mention nuclear energy, completely dismissing this key French sector from the country's energy landscape.

Conference participants curious about nuclear power will also find it difficult to find any information on the subject, from either groups who oppose atomic energy or those who defend it.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is organising a talk called "Why the climate needs nuclear energy", just a day before the conference ends. The isolated event will nevertheless be easy to overlook amid dozens of competing panels, not to mention the last dash to secure an international climate deal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a booth in the Exhibits Area of the convention centre, but denies it is here to advocate the use of nuclear power. Greenpeace, a strong critic of nuclear energy, prepared a briefing for its campaigners in view of the COP 21, but the group is not addressing the issue directly in Paris.

Sylvain David, a physicist with France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said he was baffled at the lack of debate about nuclear energy at the COP 21.

"It's difficult to understand how France will make drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions without taking nuclear into consideration," he told FRANCE 24, reminding that France massively developed its atomic energy infrastructure in the 1970s to reduce dependence on fossil-fuel imports. "It's incredible that we are not even asking ourselves the question," he added.

A low-carbon technology

Loreta Stankeviciute, an energy economist with the IAEA, agreed that nuclear energy was struggling to have its voice heard at the big environmental summit in Paris. "Nuclear power has always been controversial," she told FRANCE 24.

She also pointed out the irony of huge campaign posters near the Eiffel Tower, which are promoting France's "100% renewables" drive, but that are lit with electricity generated from nuclear power.

Stankeviciute said the IAEA was at the conference to help countries make "informed decisions" about the use of nuclear power, and to support language in the text of the final deal that would put nuclear energy "on equal footing" with renewables.

"Nuclear Energy is a low-carbon technology with a huge potential for mitigating climate change," she said, "and it's a critical one for reaching the 2°C target".

Hard times

Jan Haverkamp, who authored the Greenpeace briefing, said the claim that nuclear energy was essential for reaching global warming targets was utterly false.

"There are now piles of scenarios that include different options for reaching decarbonisation targets that do not include nuclear energy," he told FRANCE 24 by telephone from Poland. "To say that it cannot be done is a total PR strategy".

In regard to the absence of debate about nuclear energy at the COP 21, Haverkamp said only a handful of delegations still believed nuclear had any long-term future in their countries.

He said that even countries that will continue to use nuclear power, like France and China, are broadly shifting resources away from this sector.

"The nuclear energy sector is facing very hard economic times," the energy consultant said. "They will increasingly struggle to update their fleet, and do not know how to finance new projects".

Cost curves

While the physicist David disagreed with Haverkamp about the ability to phase out nuclear energy and fossil fuels simultanously, both agreed that the fate of nuclear energy may be determined by market forces in the end.

In the wake of Fukushima disaster and a new global focus on terrorism, nuclear power plants will have to be both safer and more secure. This will likely increase the cost of nuclear energy in the short term, according to David. At the same time, a massive ramp-up of green technology is expected to bring down renewable energy costs.

David said that current economic trends demanded a quick return on investment, and that the energy sector was not excempt from such expectations.

Nuclear reactors, which he reminded required very high initial investments and only delivered profits a few decades later, were dangerously out of sync with the economic times.

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