Nuclear power expansion to emerging economies such as China will feature high on the energy agenda of the G8 group of industrialised nations when it meets in St Petersburg from 15 to 17 July.
"Emerging economies will need to have access to sources of energy […] to the point where it may be incompatible" with efforts to reduce global warming currently undertaken in Europe, an EU official said on 10 July in view of the G8 summit this week-end.
"There is a need to seriously discuss the development of nuclear energy" also in the context of safety, security and non-proliferation, the official added in reference to the current standoff over Iran's nuclear enrichment programme. "Wherever you look, you will have nuclear somewhere. The issue cannot be ignored," the official said.
G8 leaders will be joined on Monday 17 July by the so-called "outreach countries" group of nations, which includes Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. They will be shown a draft statement which refers to the development of nuclear as "a shared energy system" between developed and developing nations.
A draft version of the G8 statement was leaked by the
on 9 July. It says nuclear power expansion "will promote prosperity and global energy security, while simultaneously offering a positive contribution to the climate change challenge." It proposes to do so through a "network of international centres providing nuclear fuel services" such as enrichment, in order to prevent proliferation.
More generally, the EU hopes the G8 will agree on market transparency, openness and fundamental market rules as key principles in international energy relations. "We hope to have a statement which enshrines these principles," the official said.
Russia is proposing to use its nuclear expertise to mass-produce nuclear power stations and sell them across the globe. The nuclear plants would be produced in Russia and mounted on a special sea platform or a barge to be towed to any part of the world, explains Mikhail Kovalchuk, the director of the Kurchatov Institute research centre in a contribution to the G8 meeting.
Kovalchuk says the technique "will reduce the duration of construction and make it controlled and understandable". "The innovative elements of the floating [nuclear power plants] are 'mass production' of nuclear reactors, an original solution of the non-proliferation issue, and the use of leasing in the nuclear industry," says Kovalchuk.
Foratom, the European nuclear power industry association, is upbeat about the positive role nuclear power can play in securing cheap and reliable electricity while reducing global warming. "Nuclear power generates electricity with virtually none of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that could cause climate change," says Foratom.
According to Foratom, the whole processing chain of nuclear would even produce less greenhouse gases than renewable energies. "GHG emissions from the full energy chain (i.e. including fuel use for the mining, processing and transport of nuclear fuel materials, as well as for power plant construction and decommissioning) amount to only about 2.5-5.7 grams of GHG (expressed as grams of carbon equivalent) per kWh of electricity produced (gCeq/kWh), compared to some 105 to 366 gCeq/kWh for fossil fuel chains and 2.5-7.6 gCeq/kWh for renewable energy chains".
However, the value of nuclear as an economically viable energy source is questioned by researchers at the Foundation for the economics and sustainability (FEASTA), an Irish charity. "Every stage in the process of supporting nuclear fission uses energy, and most of this energy is derived from fossils fuels," says FEASTA. "Nuclear power is therefore a massive user of energy and a very substantial source of greenhouse gases," it writes.
Moreover, FEASTA says the calculation of the real energy cost of nuclear does not take other elements into consideration, such as waste management. "The nuclear power industry is living on borrowed time in the sense that it is has not yet had to find either the money or the energy to reinstate its mines, bury its wastes and decommission its reactors; if those commitments are simply left out of account, the quantity of fossil fuels needed by nuclear power to produce a unit of electricity would be, on average, only 16 percent of that needed by gas".
Environmentalists at Greenpeace say the assumed dilemma between opting for nuclear power or suffering the effects of climate change is a false one. "Nuclear energy is slow to build, dirty, dangerous and expensive," it says in a May 2006 briefing paper. "Nuclear energy relies on subsidies, including underwriting for construction cost or caps on construction costs, operating performance, non-fuel operations and maintenance cost, nuclear fuel cost and decommissioning cost, liability caps and guarantees that the output will be purchased at a guaranteed price", the environmental organisation says.
"Investments of human and economic resources are far better placed into energy efficiency and the numerous renewable technologies available to guarantee the right to safe, clean and affordable energy".
- 15-17 July 2006: G8 meeting in St Petersburg
- November 2006: EU-Russia summit