No More Nuclear Energy? A Lost Fight Before It Even Starts!
12 Jul, 2007 04:05 pm
Jacques Foos analyses questions on world development in an un-dogmatic style. He is a professor at the National Conservatory of the Arts et Metiers and the director of the Nuclear Science Laboratory.
Reminder: Gtep means “gigatone-equals-petrol”. To situate the ideas, on person in France consumes the equivalent of 3 tep of energy per year; 1 Gtep corresponds to 1 billion tep’s.
That said, we note a huge disparity in the energy consumed on the Planet: one French person uses 3 tep per year, an American uses almost 8, an Asian 0.6 and an African 0.3! Yet, we well know that energy is first and foremost a health factor (an indication of technical progress) and the increase in lifespan in the West corresponds with this energy increase (let’s not forget that each hour lived, we the French, extend our lifespan by a quarter of an hour).
Another little known fact that is very significant in the world in which we live: last year we produced more transistors that grains of rice – and cheaper! Developing countries will want to join this technological world that we are creating, which would only be fair. This explains the explosion of the energy demand.
However, 57% of energy sources used today (gas and oil) will disappear in 50 years (at least in the economic conditions that exist today); 23% comes from coal, the consumption of which will need to be reduced due to pollution concerns (also true for gas and oil). Thus, in total, 80% of energy used comes from combustible fossil fuels, CO2 emitters: one ton of coal releases 1,900 m3 of CO2!
What to do? What kind of future are we going to leave for our children, us who will have used all of the carbonized resources by polluting the planet and disrupting the climate? There still remains the other resources which represent 20% of the energy, that is 2 Gtep per year, whereas we will need at least 30 Gtep per year in 40 years. Let’s say it straight away: we won’t be able to increase their production by 15 fold. This means that we’ll continue to extract coal at the detriment of the environment, but also that we need to develop other non-CO2 emitting sources of energy.
If we build dams everywhere where it is possible, we can multiply hydraulic production by 5, but that only translates into a production of 1.5 Gtep per year. Let’s not forget, like we have seen in China with the “Three Gorges Dam”, the humane consequences (in this context: 1,200,000 displaced people, 20 cities, and 1000 villages flooded). Also we need to remind ourselves of dam collapses (more than 300,000 dead in India in 1979, 423 dead in France in 1959,…).
Wind energy will also lead to a production of 1.5 Gtep per year, which means that it will multiply its current output by 150. Which also means that we need to install wind turbines everywhere that it is possible at the detriment of local populations. Biomass will be able to provide 4 Gtep per year maximum, solar energy at 1.5 Gtep per year (here again, a 150 fold increase versus today), geothermal energy at 1 Gtep per year (30 fold).
We will be obliged to maintain the same level of consumption of oil and gas (less economical and more polluting to extract) and also perhaps to double the consumption of coal. One has to hope that we will have done the most to save energy. The theory shows that a 500 W halogen lamp, running 4 hours per day, is enough to heat a 20 m3 in a perfectly insolated room (1). Possible savings, all efforts taken into consideration: 2 Gtep per year (20% of our current consumption: that’s considerable!)
Despite this assessment, 9 Gtep per year are still needed to meet the most conservative estimate (which is not, once again, the one that we have followed in the last 10 years). Only nuclear energy can provide the remainder needed, which corresponds to 5,000 reactors, which will have to be built within 40 years. That is clearly an impossible goal to achieve. This means that we will lack energy in 40 years, and yet that we can’t do without nuclear!
Better to be aware of it, prepare for it, and fix the current nuclear problem:
through the management of nuclear waste in the most reasonable ways at the human level and lastely to force all countries that build nuclear reactors to respect the same set of standards in terms of safety that currently exist for reactors in the West (2). These are the challenges that we currently face. It’s an energy conundrum, but human intelligence will be able to solve it if good technological choices are made today.
(1) What energy for tomorrow? Ch. N. Go, Spécifique Editions Paris
(2) Of course France, due to pressure from the anti-nuclear crowd, could stop nuclear energy; it’s a small country that would find itself at 300th in the world. But at the international level, the increase of nuclear technology is inevitable. Better to stay on this path and help other countries benefit from our pioneer experience in this field – it can only be extremely profitable for our country.
Translation by: Christopher Le Coq
Professor Foos is the chair holder of isotope radiation and the president of the “environmental center” of CNAM. He is the vice president of the commission of the surveillance factory of the Hague (CSPI). The government named him an expert in the field of ionizing rayons for the creation of a national plan “health-environment”.