Connaughton’s nuclear litmus test for climate change seriousness

July 7, 2008 at 8:22 am | Posted in Climate change, Environment, Germany, Nuclear power, United States | 5 Comments
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My friends in Germany may find this pertinent question and answer (American opinion) from today’s Press Briefing by James Connaughton, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality worth reflecting on:

MR. CONNAUGHTON: … The U.S. is bringing to that table more than $4 billion annually in technology, research and development spending in the clean energy space. We are bringing to the table this year $42.5 billion of publicly backed loan guarantees to actually get these technologies into the marketplace at commercial scale. And we have invited other countries with similar portfolios to us to make that kind of a public commitment. We’ll see what happens with respect to that, too. Watch for that in the G8 and watch for that in the major economies process.

Q The term “clean energy,” as you used it in that context, does this include nuclear energy, as well? Or is that an extra topic and maybe an extra conflict in the G8?

MR. CONNAUGHTON: When you speak of power generation being the most important area for reducing carbon emissions, the — finding carbon and capture solutions for coal is one piece of the answer. A significant scale-up of nuclear energy is another part of the answer. And a move from relatively small-scale renewables to what we call gigawatt-scale renewables — these are huge renewable power development — is a third part of the solution.*

There is no question, and the IPCC has made this clear in its assessments, that nuclear energy, responsibly developed by countries capable of managing it, is an essential component of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And so I actually use that as a litmus test for seriousness on climate change. A country that has the capability to responsibly use nuclear energy in my view has a responsibility to do so, if we want to get serious about not just cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but also improving public health through reduced air pollution.


Q So then — one more question — does that mean that Germany now is not serious in fighting climate change?

MR. CONNAUGHTON: I’ve given my views on — any country that has the capacity and capability of using nuclear if you want to make — achieve deep cuts in emissions should use it. I will give you the example. We have to — in order to — let’s use the idea of cutting emissions in half. In order to cut emissions in half, if you take the trajectory of countries today, you’re talking about avoiding more than what’s called 30 gigatons of emissions — gigatons. These are billions of tons of emissions that will otherwise go up through coal use and other fossil fuel use.

Well, let me give you an example. Thirty gigatons is what we have to try to cut or more. Well, one gigaton reduced is 136 nuclear power plants. That’s one-third of the current number of nuclear power plants. Just to increase one gigaton, you need 136 new nuclear power plants. The globe is not on path to do that much today. And so what we really have to look forward to is a significant scale-up beyond that. And that’s just to get a couple gigatons reduced. We need to do the same with renewable power. We need several gigatons reduced renewable power, but that requires going from several tens of thousands of windmills globally to, you know, perhaps a couple of million.

And so we have to understand the scale of what we need to do if we’re serious about deep cuts. Efficiency will get us a piece of it, but even if efficiency gets us 20 to 30 percent — efficiency and conservation — well, that still leaves 70 percent. So you still have to find carbon capture and storage solution, or these zero-emission solutions like nuclear power if you want to make real progress.

* Update: I added in this grey text so you can see the nuclear reference with respect to investment in “clean energy”, although, Connaughton did not answer the question about “clean energy” using those words directly 😉



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  1. Hilarious. So Germany, which has done something about the larger issue of emissions but irrationally avoids the smaller issue of increased nuclear power is at fault, while the US which has irrationally done nothing about emissions but has advocated the partial solution of nukes is to be applauded.
    I also wonder how many new countries should have nuclear power according to Connaughton. A lot of these right wingers forget the whole issue of nuclear power supporting nuclear weapons proliferation.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Exactly. Connaughton is singing from the same hymn book as Gordon Brown, who is calling for the greatest renaissance in nuclear power the world has ever known.
    This appears to be another attempt to isolate Germany’s (perceived superior) position as leader of climate change solutions. American and British ministers seem to prefer thinking in terms of massive centralised projects with the same people in charge, same attitudes to use of energy, same habits, no green energy revolution, business-as-usual … how destructively unimaginative can these guys get?!
    Connaughton uses the phrases “responsibly developed”, “capable of managing”, and “to responsibly use” and “has a responsibility to do so” in the context of embracing nuclear energy to combat climate change and improve public health and safety. (I can certainly breathe easier after that lot.)
    Guess who determines which other countries are “responsible”?

  3. He’s recycling the usual nonsense.
    Baseload electricity generation is all that nukes are good for, which (even allowing for a myriad of other practical obstacles), limits the amount they could contribute to global energy supply.

  4. Yes, Connaughton waxes lyrical (deliberately over-selling?) on nuclear—talking it up as Brown does—giving the impression it is the most promising of potential silver bullet-like approaches. In Britain, it seems we are often told that “it is widely accepted” that nuclear will have to be ramped up dramatically—no doubt about it! (Hence, I suppose, the revision of planning regulations here in the UK to enable nuclear projects to be rushed through the planning process before people notice.)
    This is all part of a pro-nuclear PR campaign, in my opinion, to dismiss objections before they are raised in order to limit public opposition. Implicit intimidation of anyone who questions this nuclear renaissance is a powerful stand to take and lead with. (We had the same experience here with the ‘consultation’ in favour of Heathrow expansion, where those of us who questioned the government’s predetermined decision were treated as time-wasting idiots trying to push string uphill to change the track ministers had preordained.)
    This nuclear-centric approach tends to ignore the fact that there is no single solution that will save the day, there are only combinations of solutions that can even get us close to some measure of success in our climate challenge. Wholehearted support for nuclear is the sense I take away from such speeches, even though alternatives are also listed. Renewables and CCS are mentioned, it seems, for greenwashing purposes, as nuclear is what seems to get ministers and their spokesmen all excited!
    The importance of the “people factor” is not stressed much at all by political leaders, for fear of being accused of nagging us and losing votes, I guess. We need leaders who inspire us to change our attitudes to energy usage, and our day-to-day habits, as well as to encourage the hesitant to adopt new energy-efficient technologies in order to reduce demand as dramatically as possible.
    You can tell I am not impressed with the emphasis Connaughton gives to nuclear power, deliberately misleading the public as to its overall significance and mentioning renewables and CCS as alternative solutions almost in passing. Though I am not against the use of nuclear power for electricity generation, it is the enthusiasm with which nuclear is promoted by UK and US leaders that shows where their hearts lie, and the infatuation is rather disconcerting. Worth watching the price of uranium, I guess … 😉

  5. P.S. This simple 4-pager from the IET gives you some idea of the scope for nuclear in the overall scheme of energy provision:
    The IET Energy Principles

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