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Pro-nuclear arguments under the guise of progress

April 26, 2012

This is the cover of the World Economic Forum's report (available here)

The World Economic Forum, a non-profit Geneva based group, recommended that Japan continue to use nuclear power or it would face the possibility that its energy security would be at risk, reports Kyodo.

Received with alarm on April 24, newspapers all over Japan printed this story, giving a lot of space to this organisation’s comments. Few questioned the accuracy of the comment; most just accepted the idea that Japan was headed for energy and economic problems if it decided to end its use of nuclear power. The press is supposed to challenge information released by groups, non-profits or otherwise.

The World Economic Forum’s report, New Energy Architecture: Japan, says

“Decommissioning nuclear power plants is expensive and any rapid change would jeopardize Japan’s energy security and increase its dependence on fossil fuel imports.”

The WEF, however, acknowledges that, in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, “the Japanese government has already responded to the concerns of civil society by committing to reduce dependency on nuclear power and promising to find alternatives to non-renewable sources. However, these transition  objectives are not without costs.”

In simple terms, the WEF would appear to be saying “civil society,” or the voters, are very concerned about nuclear energy, and the Japanese government had to address those “concerns” by reducing its use of nuclear power. A government following the wishes of the population is engaging in democracy. Is that a problem?

It might appear that democracy is not the primary concern of the WEF, but it does not state this in its report. Why would it? There are other ways, however, to get the same message across. A look at what it said about Germany might help to illustrate this point. Earlier in its report the WEF criticised Germany’s decision to stop using nuclear power, citing job cuts and a rise in CO2 emissions; it says this would be due to gas and coal being used to generate energy in place of nuclear power plants offline. The WEF said that “environmental impacts may be negative.” That may be true. But, as the report admits, this would be in the short-term, something that is important to distinguish.

First the WEF’s point about jobs losses is one that Germans will not be overly concerned about. “Germany’s jobless rate dropped to a new post-reunification low of 6.7 per cent in March, bucking the trend in other euro zone countries,” reported the Irish Times (here). It is difficult to see how the loss 11,000 thousand jobs (out of 2.84 million) would have any negative impact on the economy, particularly since the nuclear plants – with exception of the Krummel plant – will not all have stopped operating until 2022. Certainly no one wants German workers, or any others, to lose their jobs. But 11,000 is a very low number in the context of the unemployment figures. There is the fact that employees would have advance warning to secure new employment.

Regarding Germany’s long-term energy goals, its renewable energy use would rise from 17% to 35% of its total energy usage by 2020. The WEF stated that this policy was “intended to bring Germany long-term economic and environmental benefits by putting it at the forefront of green technology.” In other words, Germany would be at the forefront of renewable energy (or one of the few); that this position would create new economic opportunities, which would be good for business, which in and of itself would create new jobs far in excess of 11,000. It does not appear, based on the argument presented in the WEF report, that switching from nuclear to renewable energy would have an impact on the economy. Even if one accepts the figure that 11,000 would lose their jobs, is the argument that Germany needs a nuclear industry so they can work a valid one?

The other concern the WEF report raised was the short-term increase in carbon dioxide projected for Germany which, with today’s global warming problems, cannot be taken lightly. The report say that “carbon emissions will also rise, with an increase of between 170 million and 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2011 and 2020, as Germany turns to coal and gas plants to replace nuclear generation in the short-term.”

The numbers 170 to 200 million tonnes of CO2 that the WEF report gave, do not tell the reader very much. The WEF report cited a June 3, 2011 Nature article for this information: “170 million and 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2011 and 2020 (depending on different assumptions about the country’s shifting power mix).” The greater detail in the original source show the numbers are only a guess, and that this guess varies widely depending on the model used to calculate the figures. The numbers are also spread out over nine years – almost a decade – an important variable to consider. Even in Nature’s worst case scenario, the highest figure cited, 400 million tones of CO2, would still not equal even half of one year of Germany’s figure at 829 million metric tonnes of CO2, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. This number is in-line with other figures, though there are a few variations (see figures here & here).

Nature clearly stated the difficulties. It cited “László Varró, head of gas and electricity markets at the International Energy Agency in Paris,” who said: “Without nuclear power, decarbonization is more difficult and more expensive. Varró “predict[ed] that the nuclear phase-out will lead to a surge in lower-carbon gas plants replacing coal plants.” That would cause Germany some difficulties in reducing its long-term CO2 emissions,” but is certainly not impossible, for “if anyone can do it, Germany can,” said Varró.

Reading the WEF report, one might get the impression that Germany would dangerously increase its CO2 emissions and cause problems for global warming by moving away from nuclear power. The evidence the WEF report cited, but did not appear to print in its report, indicated Germany may be able to reduce its long-term CO2 output to pre-1990 levels, with some sacrifices. This would be a major victory for science, not a setback in any way; the WEF report appears to show this as a negative (see Nature article here). Long-term is, without question, the most important consideration, not levels over a few years which may have no great overall impact. How many total tonnes will CO2 have been reduced? If all goes well, despite some temporary increases, the decreases in CO2 will be enough to compensate for them.

Whether its authors use the jobs or CO2 emissions argument, neither seems to raise concerns great enough to suggest Germany’s decision to phase-out nuclear power is somehow in error. This appear to be an argument in support of the pro-nuclear industry, which repeats ad nauseam that “without nuclear power, CO2 emissions cannot be reduced.” Are people supposed to believe that 11,000 jobs and a small temporary increase in CO2 are  more important than “polls showing around 80% of Germans backing Angela Merkel’s decision this year to phase out nuclear faster than planned”? (see here).

Though a “not-for-profit organization that brings these leaders together to work on projects that improve people’s lives,” one would ask if business leaders care about helping people or its profits. Also, what do they mean by “improve”? Its membership might give some idea. The WEF ‘s “members represent the 1,000 leading companies and 200 smaller businesses – many from the developing world.” According to their website, “a typical Member company is one of the world’s foremost 1,000 enterprises with a leading role in shaping the future of its industry or region, a solid projected growth potential and a turnover of a minimum of US$ 5 billion.” Though they claim they are “far from being a ‘rich man’s club,'” it is difficult to take that statement at face value (read here).

Returning to Japan, there are recently published articles that warn a move away from nuclear power “would jeopardize Japan’s energy security and increase its dependence on fossil fuel imports” (see here). This is the opinion of the WEF, which was cited with no comment or scrutiny by most Japanese journalists. This comes from the very same report as the information on Germany. One might want to take these claims with a grain of salt, especially since the Japanese government and businesses are engaged in a war of propaganda to force the Japanese public to accept restarts of the nuclear plants the public prefer to keep closed. “Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, on Monday renewed his call that the government restart idled nuclear reactors as power shortages are anticipated this summer,” reported the Nikkei. The business federation in question is Keidanren, the most influential spokesman for the wealthy companies that want to restart reactors now. In short, there is no convincing evidence a move away from nuclear power will threaten the German or Japanese economy, but there are some who want readers to think so.

Civis Journal

The WEF report can be seen here.

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