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Nuclear sweet talks wind prior to Kyoto

In what appeared to be a last ditch attempt to marshal its ranks before the United Nations third summit on climate change in Kyoto this month, the nuclear lobby not only turned out in force for a recent European energy conference, it also renewed its attempts to get into bed with the renewables lobby.

Supporters of renewable energy could be forgiven for expecting that a conference called "Climate Change and the future of the European energy industry: looking ahead to Kyoto" would be dominated by talk of wind, solar and biomass technologies. Particularly when the two main speakers were none other than Ritt Bjerregaard, the EU's environment commissioner, and Christos Papoutsis, the energy commissioner. Bjerregaard is from Denmark, the land of the wind turbine, and Papoutsis is not only an active supporter of renewables, he is also championing a White Paper aimed at ensuring their greater penetration of Europe's electricity supply system.

But as the conference got into its stride in Brussels on November 6, the expectations of renewables proponents were quickly eclipsed by the lobbying power of an industry which regards itself as being just as clean as wind and solar. Nuclear was in fine form. It, too, had warmed to the pre-event blurb of the second annual conference held by European Voice, a weekly newspaper, which promised an "inside track on the unfolding debate in the EU's corridors of power."

For renewables, what promised to be a useful opportunity to assess the profile of renewable energy, both in European policy and the wider energy industry in the run-up to Kyoto, also proved to be a salutary lesson in underestimating the competition. Almost from the start it was nuclear lobbyists among the 130 delegates, not the representatives of fossil fuels or major power consumers, who were attacking the EU's proposals for C02 reduction.

These were outlined in a presentation by Bjerregaard. En route between Washington and Tokyo, she opened the proceedings by clarifying the EU's negotiating position for the United Nations climate change summit in Kyoto this month (box). Describing the United States as the "main obstacle" to achieving a global programme for reduction of C02 emissions, Bjerregaard sketched the principle areas of disagreement and indicated that a considerable amount of shuttle diplomacy would be necessary if the differences were to be overcome and Kyoto was to result "in action, not more talking."

Her presentation was hardly over when numerous speakers from the floor rose to their feet, pointing out that nuclear power was carbon free and currently supplied 30% of Europe's electricity needs yet had been omitted from the EU proposals. It soon became clear that the nuclear industry would welcome any carbon tax imposed at Kyoto as opening the door for significant expansion in the next century.

Nuclear's game plan

As the day progressed, nuclear's game plan unfolded. Linda Gunter of Foratom, the European atomic forum, confided during the coffee break: "The nuclear industry has its eye on the long term." Wind and nuclear, she claimed, "shared a common concern for clean, long term sustainable energy sources." Her words took on new significance when the nuclear industry assumed the platform for the concluding presentation of the morning. Dominique Vignon, chairman of conference sponsor Framatome, argued that "producing more electricity without more CO2 means relying massively on renewables, and nuclear É period." Endorsing the 15% EU target for C02 reduction as reflecting "the virtuous old European humanism," Vignon sketched a vision of the future in which renewables development would be underpinned by cheap base load power from nuclear energy. "Too much time has been wasted in fruitless battles between nuclear and renewables supporters" he said, "both sources are in fact complementary."

Prior to Vignon's non too subtle pass at renewables, Paul Lako of the Netherlands Energy Research Foundation (ECN) had presented a series of forecasts showing the likely long term impact on fuel use of different rates of carbon tax. According to ECN forecasts, a tax of EU 50/tonne of C02 would lead to European power generation in 2050 being equally divided between renewables, natural gas and nuclear, with coal fading from the picture in 2020. His predictions, however, were based on the assumptions that the nuclear industry -- Chernobyl and Three Mile Island notwithstanding -- had a "reasonable safety record" and that there existed the political will for massive nuclear expansion. Both of these assumptions came under heavy fire in the ensuing discussion from the floor.

Meantime, the other players in "future energy" markets were also trying to get a word in. Ian Mays of British wind development company Renewable Energy Systems showcased renewable energy technology in an invited presentation. Mays is also president of the European Wind Energy Association. He was followed by Kari Huopalahti of COGEN Europe, who did much to support Bjerregaard's faith in the potential of cogeneration in a liberalised energy market.

Highly sceptical

But it was Vignon's comparison of scientific doubts about railway safety in the 1850s and the attitudes to the nuclear industry which attracted response from the floor, albeit highly sceptical. The subsequent debate was lively.

Regretting that he had to conform to the "green" stereotype, Liam Salter of Climate Network Europe poured cold water on the nuclear vision, pointing out that in none of the energy markets currently in the process of liberalisation was the nuclear option being given serious consideration.

Having failed to persuade the few "greens" in the audience, the arguments of the nuclear lobby did seem to be making some headway with the policy makers when a spokesman for Energy Commissioner, Christos Papoutsis, conceded that "after Kyoto it might be necessary to reconsider the role of nuclear power in energy policy."

MEP Ken Collins, Chair of the European Parliament's Environment Committee was, however, unconvinced. Observing that the industry had "enormous credibility problems," he said that the nuclear option was at present politically unacceptable. "You tell us that the technology is safe, but ask any ordinary European citizen, whether in Manchester or Milan, and they don't believe it." Even accepting the claims about technological safety, he said that there would always be the problem of political instability "would you think about developing a nuclear industry in Iran?" he asked the conference.

Admitting that he could see no simple solution to the "crisis" of climate change, Collins reviewed the problems with each of the current energy alternatives. Coal and oil he said had no long term future, while natural gas reserves were finite and uncertainty about the security of Eastern European reserves were an additional problem.

Despite the exorbitant claims made on their behalf, renewables, he said, showed the most potential for development and the increasing interest of power distribution companies in wind power was encouraging, even though he was sometimes sceptical about the strength of their commitment.

Although broadly supportive of the EU position in Kyoto, Collins accused the Commission of "shirking its responsibility in not telling us how the target will be met." If the target is to be achieved, he said, the figure must be broken down into targets for individual member states. At present the policy is "constructive but not fleshed out properly. The policy has to be sold to the ordinary citizen, which requires information and detail, and that so far has been lacking." Questioning whether the Commission had the political will to really tackle the problem of climate change he pointed to the under funding of the Altener programme, the only EU instrument specifically tailored to promoting renewables.

Kyoto overview

The final papers of the day approached Kyoto from a broader perspective. Leif Ervik of the Energy Charter denied the relevance of pursuing reduction targets at Kyoto and argued that a system of emissions trading was the only long term solution to climate change. With the EU already considerably more energy efficient than its neighbours to the east, it made sense to concentrate efforts on reducing the emissions of the worst polluters on the "right to pollute principle" he said.

Bert Bolin, former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rounded off the conference with an apocalyptic vision of the extent of existing climate change. He suggested that average temperatures may already have increased by two degrees Centigrade, but that the effect was "masked" by other factors. The last word, however, went to a delegate who denounced Bolin's work as a "fraud" and claimed the "anti CO2 campaign was the biggest swindle in history."

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