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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.