The comeback of nuclear energy and fossil fuels as well as hard times for solar energy and technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) were the highlights of a conference organised by the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) which took place yesterday in Brussels (16 February) [more about the event].
Philip Lowe, European Commission Director General for Energy, said the Fukushima nuclear disaster had in fact led to "significant decisions" only in one country, Germany.
In May last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government agreed that Germany will shut all its nuclear reactors by 2022. But almost simultaneously, ten EU member countries confirmed their commitment to developing nuclear energy, Lowe said, suggesting the technology still had a bright future ahead of it.
The acceptance factor
The EU official stressed the public acceptance factor regarding nuclear, but also other types of energy. Taking the UK as an example, he said an overwhelming majority of MPs in the House of Commons had voted in favour of nuclear energy, with 600 backing the technology and only 80 rejecting it.
In other countries like Austria, by contrast, "politicians can't even mention nuclear, even if they consume nuclear from time to time," Lowe said.
The Commission high official reminded that EU countries are free to decide on their own energy mix but that the debate at national, regional and local level could make the difference in terms of acceptability.
In the UK for instance, there is "massive resistance" to on-shore wind farms, Lowe pointed out.
Electricity 'loop flows'
Returning to Germany's case, Lowe noted that the decision to stop eight nuclear plants after Fukushima had made the country a net importer of electricity.
The supply shortfall coming from nuclear plant closures was expected to be filled with wind energy, he said. But because of a lack of interconnection within Germany, the electricity produced by those wind farms could not by supplied to the consumers directly and had to pass through Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria before reaching them, with the consequent power losses.
He added that the need to maintain electric system stability in Germany had required putting diesel generation and oiled-powered stations back on stream.
Paul Rorive, Member of the executive committee in charge of nuclear development at French energy company GdFSuez, followed up saying that the industry had started to emerge from the shock created by the Fukushima disaster.
Rorive stressed the cost-effectiveness of the nuclear industry and pointed to the huge market which had now opened at the global level.
"We have not been the champions of communication. We have to turn this page," Rorive said.
But perhaps the most striking statement at the conference came from a health scientist who is not an energy expert.
In a vibrant plea for the nuclear sector, Jean de Kervasdoué, a health expert who teaches at the French Centre National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM), spoke at length about the misperception of the dangers of radiation.
The speaker puzzled the audience by denouncing the "macabre accountancy" surrounding nuclear incidents, suggesting that the health dangers have been grossly exaggerated.
Kervasdoué pointed to research he did in the 1990s at the Mayak nuclear accident site in Russia, one of the worst in history. The explosion in 1957 of 50-100 tonnes of highly radioactive waste there contaminated a huge territory in the eastern Urals but the Soviet regime took the decision not to evacuate the population after the incident.
Kervasdoué said that much to his surprise, the explosion had left traces on the population that were not different from those seen in average cities contaminated by industry.
He also said that according to a recent WHO research on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster the real number of deaths was only 63 people (a figure which actually does not appear in the report). According to other sources, the Chernobyl accident has caused some 25,000 deaths.
Kervasdoué also compared the number of deaths in the different energy sectors, which placed nuclear power in the most favourable category, together with hydroelectric power.
According to him, 20,000 people have died in coal mines in 2011 alone, and up to 800,000 died from the pollution ceated by coal mining and burning. Regarding the Fukushima nuclear accident, he said that only seven people were contaminated, and not a single death had been caused by radiation so far.