Possible limited nuclear phase-out after 2025?

By Francis Leboutte, President of Fin du nucléaire

Like many national and international institutions, the author of the draft resolution(1) on a possible limited nuclear phase-out after 2025 highlights the low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of nuclear power, which would be comparable to those of wind power, i.e. 12 grams of CO2(2) per kilowatt hour (kWh) produced, which would put nuclear power at the forefront of energy proposals to mitigate global warming.

A comparative analysis of the life cycle of these two electricity production methods shows that putting nuclear power on the same level as wind power is a fiction:

  • The life cycle of the nuclear industry includes many processes, all but one of which generate GHGs;
    • construction of the nuclear power plant, maintenance and operation ;
  • the consumption of material per kWh produced is 20 times higher for nuclear power.(3)
  • the materials consumed by the nuclear industry are for the most part non-recyclable, because they are radioactive.
  • It is not possible to quantify with certainty the GHG emissions related to the management of high-level and/or long-lived waste, mainly consisting of spent fuel, because it would take several hundred or thousands of years to analyze the qualities and energy costs of a storage facility that should be safe for one million years.(4)
  • For its uranium fuel needs, a 1 GW (gigawatt) reactor such as the T3 reactor at the Tihange power plant or the D4 reactor at the Doel power plant requires the extraction of approximately 200,000 tons of uranium ore per year, to which must be added 800,000 tons of  » waste rock « , i.e., rock extracted but not processed because its uranium content is too low for industrial exploitation, i.e., a total of 1 million tons of rock extracted per nuclear GW per year. In the face of this extractivist debauchery, in terms of « fuel », a wind farm requires only wind to produce electricity.

It is easy to see that putting nuclear and wind power on the same level in terms of GHG emissions does not hold water. An independent expert(5) arrives at a value of 165 grams ofCO2eper kWh, necessarily without taking into account the uncertainties and unknowns related to the storage of waste, the emissions of halogenated hydrocarbons during the enrichment of uranium and, to a certain extent, the decommissioning of the power plants(6). On the other hand, this emission rate is expected to grow rapidly because the high-grade uranium ore has already been mined and more and more energy will be needed to extract the uranium from an increasingly poor ore.(7)

So how is the idea that nuclear power is a low-carbon source of electricity so widespread? The explanation lies in the power and efficiency of the nuclear lobby, starting with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)(8) It could not be better placed at the top of the UN institutional pyramid, under the control of the Security Council and the atomic powers, an ideal position to deceive its world through a well orchestrated propaganda campaign.(9)

Shortly after the release of the IPCC’s October 2018 special report(Global Warming by 1.5°C), I met with one of the editors of the Summaryfor PolicyMakers and asked him how the IPCC could be a vehicle for such misinformation. The answer could not be clearer:  » The subject is political and there is no question of one UN agency contradicting another, especially when the latter is in a dominant position.

The low-carbon nuclear argument is a lie and any argument for extending nuclear power that uses it is discredited.

The author of the draft resolution cannot be blamed for making much of global warming, even going so far as to quote Greta Thunberg. However, by limiting himself to highlighting the supposed climate benefits of one energy source over another, he shows that he has not understood that global warming is unfortunately only one of the symptoms of a systemic crisis of a completely different scale. He does not question our model of society and shows himself incapable of leaving the myth of infinite growth in a finite world, in particular that of the growth of electricity consumption which he sees as ineluctable  » during the decades to come « . Everyone should know that an increase in electricity production, even if it is « sustainable », can only be accompanied by an increase in GHG emissions and the consumption of non-renewable resources. This blindness also allows him and his party to be in favor of the deployment of 5G and the Internet of Things, which will undoubtedly cause a heavy increase in the consumption of electrical and other energy. In the end, it proposes to do exactly the opposite of what should be done to ensure a viable future for our children and future generations and it follows a path that leads humanity and the living world to catastrophe.

The author of the draft resolution also seems to attach great importance to opinion polls which would tend to prove that a majority of Belgians would be in favour of an extension of nuclear power. He should know that surveys can be made to say anything as long as the questions are worded properly. I suggest that he order a new survey with this question:  » Would you be in favor of an extension of nuclear power on the condition that high-level waste be stored in your municipality? In view of the reactions to ONDRAF’s recent public consultation on the destination of these wastes, there is no doubt about the answers that would be provided. The Belgians have in fact understood perfectly well that there is no proven solution for the  » This is another element that preaches against the prolongation of nuclear power and even for an immediate stop, because the more the stock of this waste increases, the more its management risks being insoluble.

Since 2012, Belgium has regularly and unexpectedly had to go without one to several reactors, up to six reactors, out of the seven in operation for varying periods of time(10). The first interest was that these shutdowns were « unplanned » and that Belgium thus benefited from an experimental proof of the non-indispensability of the nuclear sector to ensure the country’s electricity supply. Between September1 and December 15, 2018 the capacity of the reactors did not exceed 2GW and even 1GW for 1 month from October 14, but at no time was Belgium threatened with a blackout or even partial load shedding. Better still, at any given time, the reserve capacity was at least 3.7GW, almost half of which was domestic capacity: Belgium could therefore have done without all of its reactors during this entire period. As this reserve is also roughly equivalent to twice the capacity of the T3 and D4 reactors that some would like to see extended beyond 2025, in terms of security of supply, it is easy to understand that this extension is pointless, as is the implementation of a mechanism for remunerating electricity production capacity (CRM) to « help » operators and investors build gas-fired power plants that would be necessary after the complete shutdown of nuclear power in 2025. Moreover, it would be paradoxical and unacceptable for the citizen to have to finance such a mechanism for the benefit of private companies that have done everything to liberalize the energy sector.

Assuming that Belgium is really short of capacity in 2025, it would be irresponsible to imagine filling this gap by extending obsolete nuclear reactors which, since 2012, have demonstrated their lack of reliability through a succession of untimely shutdowns and have seen their average utilization rate drop by nearly 25% (it is as if a quarter of the nuclear fleet had been lost).

But this risk would be considered minor in the face of a possibility that is becoming more and more likely as time goes by: the risk of a major accident that would annihilate Belgium, as well as part of its neighboring countries. It should be remembered that these reactors were designed for a 30-year service life, that their vessels cannot be replaced and that, day by day, under the effect of the neutron bombardment of the nuclear reaction, the steel of which they are made gradually loses its resistance qualities to an extent that is impossible to measure in reality (only tests of steel samples taken from the vessels could really objectify their condition). A spontaneous rupture of the reactor vessel can no longer be excluded, given the excessive brittleness due to ageing, with the consequence of a total loss of cooling water, a rapid core meltdown and extremely high radioactive releases. Another more likely scenario is that the tank rupture could occur as a result of thermal shock following a massive injection of emergency cold water in response to a leak in the primary cooling system (such a leak occurred in the D1 reactor in 2018, fortunately discovered when the reactor was shut down and the leak was still minimal). Quite possible scenarios that would not be denied by the highest French nuclear safety authorities such as Pierre-Franck Chevet, president of the Nuclear Safety Authority, who told the newspaper Le Monde on April 20, 2016,  » A major nuclear accident cannot be excluded anywhere. »

Notes et références
  1. Commission de l’énergie, de l’environnement et du climat Chambre des représentants de Belgique
  2. Gaz carbonique équivalent précisément (CO2e).
  3. Par exemple, de l’acier et du béton ; ils sont activés (deviennent radioactifs) par le bombardement des neutrons de la réaction de fission de l’uranium.
  4. 200 g pour le nucléaire, 10g pour l’éolien marin, 6g pour l’éolien terrestre.
  5. De ce point de vue, les tentatives de stockage géologique profond du combustible usé ne sont guère encourageantes comme en témoigne l’arrêt des sites de Yucca Mountain au Nevada et de Gorleben en Allemagne (ce dernier après 40 ans d’efforts infructueux). De fait, plus de septante ans après le début de l’ère nucléaire, aucun pays ne dispose d’un stockage géologique pour le combustible usé en activité.
  6. Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, Climate change and nuclear power, 2017 (www.stormsmith.nl/climatenuclear.html) et CO2 emissions of nuclear power: the whole picture, Nuclear monitor (Wise), juin 2020.
  7. À ce jour, un seul réacteur de 1GW et plus a été démantelé dans le monde (centrale de Trojan, Oregon ; sa cuve n’a pas été démontée, mais enterrée à 15m sous terre).
  8. C’est le « CO2 trap », le piège du CO2 qui fait que dans 50 ans, au rythme de la consommation actuelle d’uranium, le CO2e émis par kWh nucléaire serait du niveau de celui des centrales à gaz d’aujourd’hui.
  9. Objet de l’AIEA : « accélérer et accroître la contribution de l’énergie atomique à la paix, la santé et la prospérité dans le monde entier ».
  10. Par exemple : « Les centrales nucléaires émettent une quantité négligeable de GES et l’électronucléaire, tout comme l’hydroélectricité et l’énergie éolienne, est l’une des technologies pour lesquelles les émissions de CO2 sont les plus faibles », Changements climatiques et énergie nucléaire, AIEA, 2015.
  11. Par exemple, 3 réacteurs à l’arrêt pendant quasiment toute l’année 2015 et 6 réacteurs à l’arrêt pendant 1 mois en octobre 2018.

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