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Ending the coal addiction

Dec 08 2011 07:31 Reuters

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Durban - South Africa, the host of UN global climate talks, is faced with a conundrum - it wants to wean itself off coal-powered plants seen as prime culprits of greenhouse gas emissions and find a cleaner energy source.

It is turning to nuclear power, despite the catastrophic environmental degradation the world witnessed after Japan's Fukushima plant disaster this year.

The global climate talks that opened earlier this week in Durban are seeing a widening division on nuclear power, with many advanced economies moving away from it after Fukushima and emerging states heavily reliant on fossil fuels embracing it as a cleaner way to power their development.

"If you want to be part of the climate change race and mitigation you basically have renewables and nuclear. Renewables are intermittent and you need a firm and reliable baseload technology.

"Renewables are not in a position to provide this yet," said H Holger Rogner, section head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) planning and economic studies section.

South Africa, among the world's top 20 emitters per capita of carbon dioxide, and many other emerging countries see nuclear power as a way to ensure energy security for the coming years and as a bridge to a time when they are rich enough to afford adding more renewables to their power mix.

The Fukushima disaster changed the economics of the nuclear industry by drying up markets in developed countries such as Japan and increasing competition among the few global conglomerates who can build nuclear power plants.

"It has become close to a buyers' market and not a sellers' market, which it was before Fukushima," said Rogner.

On paper nuclear power is an ideal energy source, producing next to no greenhouse gas emissions while churning out stable supplies of electricity. But, as Fukushima and Chernobyl have shown, an accident can quickly turn vast areas into nuclear wastelands, raises risks of radiation poisoning and leaves a massive bill for clean up.

The electric mix

China, the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter due to its heavy reliance on coal, is looking to scale down its nuclear plant ambitions due to Fukushima but could still bring dozens of reactors on line in the next decade.

Chinese officials have suggested no new "second-generation" reactors - seen as more risky than newer versions on the global market - will be approved, leaving the way clear for third-generation models designed by France's Areva and US-based Westinghouse, owned by Toshiba.

The head of fast-growing India's atomic energy commission, Srikumar Banerjee, told the IAEA's annual member state gathering in September of the emerging powerhouse's plans for a "major expansion" of nuclear capacity.

The IAEA says it still sees "significant" growth ahead - forecasting at least 90 new reactors by 2030 to add to the world's existing 432 - even though Fukushima has prompted it to cut its forecast.

The increasing number of plants has worried many environmental groups who said Fukushima served as a powerful reminder that not even the most technologically advanced states can properly manage nuclear power - let alone safely manage the growing amounts of highly radioactive waste they produce.

South Africa has enough coal to power the country for decades, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters told reporters on Thursday at the UN climate conference, but wants to see it become a smaller part of the energy mix.

It now relies on coal to generate about 90% of its electricity but plans to spend scores of billions of dollars for nuclear power to reduce that number.

Ferrial Adam, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said money would be better spent on smaller-scale projects aimed at bringing electricity to the 20% of the country without power, instead of expanding a grid where a bulk of the power goes to a few electricity-hungry industries.

She is also worried the country may go for a dangerous option, keeping coal, building nuclear plants and not making a serious commitment to renewables.

"The South African government is so convinced that renewable won't be able to deal with this growing economy they are talking about," she said. 

cop 17  |  nuclear energy  |  carbon emissions  |  coal
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