Friday, July 10, 2009

Pfooey To Pfrance

Every time the subject of nuclear energy comes up, someone has to mention France.

France, if you listen to the hoopla, is a kind of holy grail of nuclear energy, a country that has “figured it all out” and does everything right where nuclear power is concerned. And no wonder: France sells electricity all around Europe, so of course they have marketed their energy as clean, green and cheap.

Except, it’s not. And they haven’t. First we have this December 2008 report, commissioned by the Green Party for the EU, which raised several issues, including some cooked books by the French government and contamination from the uranium processing plant at La Hague.

But if you don’t want to believe the Greens, please believe the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Last June they looked at the French nuclear hype and determined it was a lot of hot air:
In 2007, nuclear energy provided 78 percent of France's electricity, which corresponded to 39 percent of its commercial primary energy but only 18 percent of its final energy. Primary energy is the energy contained in the fuel when it enters the system, while final energy is what is left over for the consumer after processing, transformation, and distribution. In the case of large nuclear or coal-fired power plants, only about one-quarter of the primary energy reaches the consumer's home, office, or factory. In France, more than 70 percent of final energy is provided by oil, gas, and coal, of which one-half is oil alone, just as in many other countries. This year, the country will face an all-time record energy bill of more than $80 billion.
So much for the energy independence myth, as well as the climate change myth. France depends on foreign energy sources just like the rest of us.

Furthermore, France closed its last uranium mine in 2001. With 100% of its uranium imported, “energy independence” isn't just far fetched, it's flat-out wrong.

The mythic “low cost” of French nuclear production is also debunked:
For decades, the civilian program has profited from direct and indirect subsidies, in particular through cross-financing with the nuclear weapons program. Current estimates don't appropriately take into account eventual decommissioning and waste-management costs, which remain a concern and quite uncertain. (In addition to post-fission waste, 46 years of uranium mining has left 50 million tons of waste for eventual cleanup and remediation, the cost of which is unknown.) Official final disposal cost estimates for long-lived high- and intermediate-level fission wastes vary between $21 billion and $90 billion.

Heh. Just like here.

And then we have the fancy footwork, the hype and hoopla of the French nuclear miracle, which appears to be smoke and mirrors:

Last year, France exported 83 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and imported 27.5 billion kilowatt hours--obviously, a large net export. But the ambassador neglects to mention that France cheaply exports base-load power and imports expensive, essentially fossil fuel-based, peak-load power to use in its citizens' wasteful winter heating systems. Net power imports from Germany, which is phasing out nuclear power, averaged about 8 billion kilowatt hours over the last few years, and the emissions linked to these imports are attributed to the exporting country, not France. But the radioactive waste stemming from its exported nuclear-generated power--equivalent to the output of a dozen reactors--remains in the country.

France’s new nuclear projects are behind schedule and overbudget: for example, the Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, built by France’s Areva, is three years behind schedule and $2.4 billion over budget. That’s billion, with a B, folks.

On July 4, while Americans were grilling hot dogs and trying to figure out Sarah Palin’s latest meltdown, the Kruemmel nuclear reactor in Germany unexpectedly shut down for the second time in a week. It had just been fired up in June, after being shut down for two years after a fire. Swedish utility Vattenfal, which operates the plant, says it is is losing about $750,000 a day from the shutdown.

This isn’t cheap energy, folks. It's not independence, either. As for "clean," well, consider that leaks and other incidents happen with regularity. You don't hear about them because they aren't all of Chernobyl-level scope. But they happen and they pollute water and air and soil and cause problems.

And speaking of Chernobyl, today's irony award goes to Irish firm Greenfield, which is using the poisoned Chernobyl land to make biofuels.

Anyway, I have an idea why some folks want a resurgence in nuclear power. It’s highly centralized, and allows corporate or nationalized government interests to retain control.

The idea of something decentralized, like people putting solar panels on their roof or windmills in their backyard, threatens the centralized status quo. If people produced their own energy, maybe there wouldn't be support for resource wars like Iraq.

I dunno, but I don't see how nuclear power is any better than coal power. It's got all of the same problems and a few others too.