Nuclear Crisis Fuels Climate Change

A global slowdown in the growth of nuclear power in reaction to the Japan crisis will seriously hamper the fight against climate change, a top International Energy Agency (IEA) official said Monday.

IEA chief economist Fatih Birol told AFP that governments must study the implications carefully before making any decision to retire nuclear power plants earlier than expected or shelve plans for new facilities.

“Nuclear is a very crucial part of the global energy mix,” he said in a telephone interview from the IEA headquarters in Paris as Japan battled to place the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors under control.

“A lower nuclear capacity growth in the future may have substantial effect on the global energy mix, energy prices and climate change.”

In its annual report released last year, the IEA projected that 360 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity would be added worldwide by 2035, on top of the existing 390 gigawatts already in use.

But as governments turn more cautious after a killer quake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11 and crippled the Fukushima plant, the IEA modelled the possible consequences of halving its projection to 180 gigawatts.

Birol said the model showed that the use of coal, natural gas and “renewables” to take up the slack from nuclear power would result in additional carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 500 million tonnes.

This is equivalent to five years of growth in global CO2 emissions, hindering efforts to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

“Instead of reaching the (emissions) level by 2035, we will reach it in 2030 — five years earlier — which is definitely bad news for climate change and will make the challenge even much more difficult to achieve,” Birol said.

He said higher demand for coal and gas is expected to push prices for these commodities higher, resulting in costlier electricity tariffs for consumers.

A third major implication of curbs on nuclear power that it will upset the global energy mix, Birol added.

Nuclear fuel does not emit any carbon dioxide, making it a serious option for “clean energy” proponents until the accident at the Fukushima plant prompted a fresh debate on the safety of nuclear energy.

Germany has announced the temporary shutdown of its seven oldest nuclear reactors while it conducts a safety probe in light of Japan’s atomic emergency.

Switzerland suspended plans to replace its ageing atomic plants, while in France — where nuclear makes up 75 percent of electricity production — environmental groups have called for a referendum on the future use of nuclear power.

Calls have also been made in Asia to review nuclear plans based on lessons learned from Fukishima.

“The reason we made this assessment is for everybody to understand the consequences of a lower-than-expected role of nuclear power in the global energy mix and in the (fight against) climate change,” Birol said.

“I think we should avoid making abrupt decisions.”

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