Fukushima …and then?

by on Wednesday, 15 June 2011 Comments

Nicolas Pagnier is a member of the Utopia office (http://www.mouvementutopia.org/). Following the Fukushima disaster in March and eRenlai's June Focus which looked in detail at the growing anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan, Nicolas feels concerned that governments and corporations in nuclear power will continue to operate business as usual. This article takes on the arguments of the pro-nuclear side one by one, before introducing the negaWatt scenario as a sustainable alternative, which would allow for an end to nuclear power in France (the most nuclear consuming country in the world) within 30 years. Article translated from French by Nick Coulson.


Three miles island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Three names, three warnings of the dangers of nuclear power, and yet, everything should continue as before. Nuclear energy remains the energy of the future, the clean energy, cheap and safe, and the pro-nuclear side are not short of arguments!


The supposed advantages of nuclear energy:


Civilian nuclear energy is a “safe” energy


All thermal power stations are based on a simple principle: producing heat to turn the turbines. The specificity of a nuclear power plant is to prevent the risk of accidents linked to radiation; it is thus in essence, a technology of ‘risk management’. The problem is that incidents are in general and by their very nature, unpredictable - as is an underestimation on the seismic scale, or the fall of an airline on the EPR.


Given the aging and the global development of civilian nuclear power, we must consider objectively that the risk of accidents will only increase with time.


The main difference with other technologies is that there is the risk of an impact that is beyond comparison with any other type of energy. When comparing the fall of a wind turbine, the explosion of a coal power plant and nuclear meltdown, the consequences are simply not on the same scale.


The treatment of waste is under control


Depending on the type of waste, the radioactive half-life can last anywhere between a few seconds and 480 000 years (the time required before Plutonium no longer gives off radiation)


By the end of 2007, there was almost 1 153 000 cubic metres of radioactive waste in France alone.


After decades of research, we are still no closer to being able to treat radioactive waste in order to reduce its radioactivity. The only solution we have is storage, and for that we must find a safe place for a quasi-eternal duration, the timescale of humanity…what are the costs of securing this location for storage? How do we mark a site so that the memory of its dangerousness lasts for a quasi-eternity? Nuclear waste is certainly the greatest ‘poisoned gift’ we will bequeath upon our future generations.


Nuclear power helps in the fight against climate change


Nuclear power plants are responsible for average emissions of 66 grams of CO2 per KWh, 8 to 15 times less than fossil fuel power plants (depending on their efficiency), and 8 times more than wind power.


The IAEA has calculated that in order to halve the level of emissions from energy production between 2010 and 2050, we would need to build 32 reactors each year during this period, some 1280 units worldwide; for eventually, a global carbon "economy" of only 6%!


In France the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by transport (26%), agriculture (19%), industry (20%) and housing (19%), the production of electricity meanwhile provides only 13%. It is therefore more effective to address these four priority sectors in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions rather than focusing on the climatic benefits of nuclear power.


Nuclear energy is a low-cost energy!


The cost of nuclear power is actually close to that of its competitors. The price of one milli-watt hour (MWh) is estimated between 50 and 55 Euros, equivalent to that of wind power (53 Euros), and less expensive than biomass (65 Euros) or coal (between 55 and 75 Euros). However the cost as estimated above does not take into account the costs of radioactive waste disposal, the insurance costs that should cover the risk of nuclear accidents and the real cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants! If operators have only a vague idea of the real cost and time required for decommissioning, maybe 20, 25 years...then what about when it comes to the radioactive waste produced…


Nuclear power is transparent and democratic


Access to information about nuclear power remains extremely tight in all countries. Authorities, as well as nuclear energy companies demonstrate an opacity that increases with the importance of the incident. The French government assured the French that the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl had never crossed the French border. More recently TEPCO was very slow before disclosing the extent of damage in Fukushima.


No real democratic debate has taken place in the countries that have chosen nuclear energy. It is about time take part in this issue!


Nuclear power is the future


Uranium stocks would last no longer than 70 years and become increasingly difficult to extract. In 100 years we may have exhausted the world's uranium reserves whilst leaving future generations with mountains of radioactive waste for millennia. A fine record for our civilization!

An alternative solution?


There is still time to change our model and an exit from nuclear power is possible. Realistic scenarios exist even in France, where 80% of electricity is nuclear! For example, the following Négawatt scenario based on three principles:




Energy sobriety consists first of all in eliminating the absurd and costly waste present at all levels of organisation of our society and of our individual behaviour.


Sobriety is neither austerity nor rationing: it’s a response to the need to base our future on better managed, more equitable energy needs. It builds the accountability of all actors, from the decision maker to the citizen. It should mobilize citizens through a public policy of information and communication, which is both ambitious and permanent, and add the Négawatt educational component to school curricula, from primary school to high school.


When it comes to transport, sobriety can translate to priority for pedestrians and bicycles in cities, the development of the collective use of vehicles (toll rate based on the number of passengers, for example) and relocation of production. Redirect funding of public research towards energy, divided as follows:


- 1/3 energy sobriety and efficiency;


- 1/3 renewable energy;


- 1/3 conventional energy sources, with priority on improving performance in the use of hydrocarbons as well as safety, waste management and decommissioning of nuclear facilities.




Energy efficiency is about minimizing losses from the resources used, to the greatest possible extent. The potential for improving the buildings, transportation and equipment we use is indeed considerable: it is possible to reduce between two and five times our consumption of energy and raw materials, using techniques already widely proven. The rational use of transport (doubling the share of ‘sober’ and efficient transports: rail, tram, bus, river) and improvements to engine efficiency would lead to reductions of 40% over current consumption. Considerable energy savings are also possible in heating and air conditioning. The conversion to more efficient buildings through better insulation, for example, would allow us to divide our heating/cooling energy consumption by three. Furthermore, the design of new buildings should meet up to very strict environmental criteria. Energy efficiency should also be an objective of the industry both in its production methods and the final products, for example minimizing levels of energy use for all electrical appliances.


Governments have an essential role in promoting efficiency as well as imposing strict standards in real estate as well as industry, encouraging citizens with subsidies for the conversion of buildings and with taxation linked to energy efficiency.




The actions of sobriety and efficiency reduce our energy needs at the source. The remainder must be supplied by renewable energy from our sole inexhaustible natural resource, the sun. Well distributed, decentralized, with little impact on our environment, renewable energy (solar, hydro, wind, biomass) are the only energies that will allow us to find a durable equilibrium between our energy needs and the resources of our planet.


We must, for example, adopt a long-term goal of 0.7 m2 of solar collectors per person in the home for solar hot water; put in place legal framework enabling local authorities to impose the installation of solar thermal equipment on the level of construction permits; favour local channels within the framework of a renovated and expanded ‘Wood Energy Plan’; make mandatory feasibility studies for renewable heat networks in all new development and infrastructure; and encourage the conversion of large and medium boiler plants into co-generation plants.


This négaWatt scenario would allow for gradual closure of nuclear plants within 30 years.


Along with the energy question, nuclear or otherwise, we are also debating the entire question of our choice of society. Is this productivist society dedicated to the god of consumption still tenable? Is it our only horizon? Or are we going to reinvent a new society more respectful of nature, a society about being rather than having.

Photo by N. Coulson

  1. http://www.andra.fr/pages/fr/menu1/les-dechets-radioactifs/les-volumes-de-dechets-11.html
  2. http://www.terra-economica.info/Oui-le-nucleaire-emet-bien-du-CO2,16535.html#nb2-1
  3. AREVA, business & strategy overview - January 2009 - Appendix 1
Nicolas Pagnier (班尼可)

Founding Member of Utopia, a Left Political movement which crosses parties and civil society.

Website: www.mouvementutopia.org/blog

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