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Nuclear for the Poor, Renewables for the Rich?

Stephen Leahy

VIENNA, Jun 27 2011 (IPS) - In a debate about the future of energy, the global south wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on nuclear plants while the global north looks to spend hundreds of millions on decentralised, renewable energy.

At least those were the positions taken by representatives during the BBC TV’s World Debate programme filmed at the 2011 Vienna Energy Forum.

“We must have nuclear energy if India is to develop,” said Srikumar Banerjee, the chair of India’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Elizabeth Dipuo Peters, minister of Energy for South Africa, agreed saying her country has recently signed agreements to add 9,600 megawatts of nuclear power. South Africa currently has two nuclear reactors generating five percent of its electricity.

“Nuclear energy is dead. It’s finished,” Peter Droege of the European Association for Renewable Energy told some of the Vienna Energy Forum’s 1,200 delegates from 100 countries who watched the debate.

The Forum that concluded last week was held to discuss how to bring clean, efficient, reliable and affordable energy services for the long-term prosperity of all people.

Nuclear is unpopular in Europe and may in fact be dead in Germany. This month the German government passed legislation that will result in the closure of all 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. Germany presently generates 28 percent of its energy from nuclear. Italy and Switzerland have made similar announcements.

Global support for nuclear energy has fallen from 54 percent to 38 percent, lower than coal, according to a Jun. 20 Ipsos public opinion poll conducted to assess the impact of Japan’s ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Public support for solar and wind remains very high at 97 and 93 percent, respectively, the survey of opinions in 24 countries found. German support for nuclear was quite low at 21 percent, while in Italy it was 18 percent. Even in France, where 75 percent of electricity is generated by nuclear, public support has fallen to just 34 percent, with 27 percent of the population strongly opposing the technology.

However, in India public support of nuclear is the highest in the world at 61 percent, while 40 percent of South Africans favour it.

“I’m quite confident that the people of India back nuclear power and support expansion,” said Banerjee, India’s chief nuclear regulator and a nuclear scientist specialising in metallurgy.

In fact, there is enormous opposition to the Indian government’s efforts to build the world’s biggest nuclear power plant at Jaitapur, some 300 kilometres south of Mumbai. The proposed 12-billion-dollar, 9900 megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant will use French-government- backed Areva’s latest design.

Areva’s first installation of its new design is a 1600 MW plant in Finland that is three years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The final cost of the Finnish facility is now estimated to be between eight and nine billion dollars, suggesting that the far bigger Jaitapur plant’s stated 12-billion-dollar cost is likely a gross underestimate.

India gets about three percent of its electricity from 20 relatively small nuclear reactors, but has proposed to build 39 more to satisfy 25 percent of its power needs by 2050.

“Even if the Jaitapur project is successful it will be 2018 before it generates electricity. Meanwhile 400 million Indians without electricity have to wait when renewable energy could bring them electricity far sooner,” said a representative from Greenpeace India.

There is also serious local opposition since several thousand people were forcibly removed from the site, she said. Most have refused to take compensation payments and continue to fight to stop the construction of the plant. Many others in the region fear for their livelihoods as farmers and fishers as well as having to live with a nuclear power plant in their backyard, she said.

“Nuclear power in India and Africa is all about making money, not providing energy services,” said Droege. There is much money to be made in uranium mining, construction, provision of equipment, consulting and more, he said.

Solar and wind are fine as energy sources for small energy needs like household lighting but not for base load power, said Dipuo Peters, South Africa’s Minister of Energy. “Renewables are far more expensive as well,” she said.

South Africa has large power needs and abundant reserves of coal, so it will proceed with construction of two huge 4,500 MW coal power plants, she said. The country meets 77 percent of its power needs with coal and has the highest carbon emissions per capita of any developing country – even though many people have no access to electricity.

“Our new coal plants will be carbon capture and storage ready,” said Dipuo Peters in response to criticism of carbon emissions.

Carbon capture and storage is a technology that strips carbon dioxide from coal plant emissions and stores them. It is unproven on a commercial scale and various estimates suggest it would double the cost of energy from coal.

“Coal is heavily subsidised by governments. It is a crime against humanity to build big carbon-emitting sources,” said Droege.

“What are we to say to poor people in Africa? ‘No energy for you – or all you get is renewables’,” said Dipuo Peters in response.

“The real crime against humanity is to have clean technology and not to share it,” said Kandeh Yumkella, director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the principle organiser of the Vienna Energy Forum.

The energy market is distorted by over 300 billion dollars in annual subsidies for fossil fuels and even more subsidies for nuclear power, Yumkella reminded the audience.

“We need better costing, true costing for all forms of energy,” he said, noting that five million dollars of renewable energy can provide significant power for thousands of people right away.

Some 40 countries pay more for fossil fuels than their entire gross domestic product, said Droege. “Let’s make them money by helping them install renewable energy.”

Yumkella agreed, saying, “We can make energy poverty history.”

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