Many climate activists have decried the COP21 climate agreement as woefully inadequate but there was nevertheless at least one victory at the climate conference: Nuclear energy did not win center stage in Paris, despite the efforts of its high-profile boosters.
The challenge at stake in Paris - the fate of the earth - meant that realism was the only option. As Greenpeace adviser Jan Haverkamp has pointed out, few delegations to the climate conference viewed nuclear energy as a long-term option for their countries. Market forces, it was generally agreed, would leave nuclear in the dust, swallowed up by the ballooning costs necessary for additional safety measures in an insecure world. Long construction times would only add to nuclear energy's growing status as a pariah in the financial world. Meanwhile, renewable energy just continues to get cheaper.
Consequently, the case for nuclear energy came across as, well, a bit iffy. US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who tried to trumpet nuclear power in Paris, sounded more like he was paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling.
"If we have a viable pathway at building nuclear power in smaller bites, the whole financing structure can change and make it much more affordable," Moniz said. And, "If we can demonstrate, let's say, the first modular reactor in the early part of the next decade, then what we hope is, it's part of the planning process in the middle of the next decade for our utilities."
Moniz also said that in the United States, there are almost 50 companies with private-sector funding that are developing new nuclear fission and nuclear fusion technologies. "If a couple of those make it, it's a big deal," he said.
"If." It's the favorite word of the nuclear industry and supporters like Moniz. Because "when" isn't really available. Small modular reactors, fusion reactors, thorium reactors, "next generation" reactors - they all remain a fantasy, in some cases long explored and failed, in others, long explored and still decades away.
Climate change is neither an "if" nor a "when" anymore: It is an extremely urgent "now." Consequently, the nuclear evangelists have to preach in something other than the conditional tense. Their strategy is to talk about what are fundamentally just plans and aspirations, yet present them as a concrete reality.
Recently, an Associated Press story was in circulation quoting Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its misleading headline, drawn from Amano's remarks at a Manila press conference, read: "Interest in Nuclear Power up Despite Fukushima."As a wire service story, it went far and wide, carrying the offending headline with it, and further cementing what is essentially a myth. In the article, Amano claims that,"Nuclear power plants or use of nuclear power is increasing significantly."
Aside from the fact that an increase in nuclear power plants is not the same as an increase in nuclear power, neither is true.
Nuclear electricity generation in the world had declined from an all-time high of 2,660 terawatt hours in 2006 to 2,410 terawatt hours by the middle of 2015, according to the 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report. This is only a 2.2 percent increase over 2014 and 9.4 percent below the historic 2006 peak. Not significant.
The report also observes that, "Nuclear energy's share of global commercial electricity generation remained stable over the past three years, but declined from a peak 17.6 percent in 1996 to 10.8 percent in 2014."
The trajectory of nuclear energy since the 1970s shows a shrinking, not expanding, fan base. Consequently, for groupies like Moniz and Amano and official boosters like the American Nuclear Society, the only option is to fudge the numbers with wishful thinking as their abacus.
During the Manila press conference, Amano said that "more than 440 nuclear power plants are currently operated worldwide." The number of reactors operating in the world is not a "more than" affair. It's precise. Reactors are either operating or they are not. And this calculation is arrived at not by picking a number greater than 440.
The American Nuclear Society (ANS), also lobbying in Paris during COP21, claimed there were 438 nuclear reactors "operating" in the world. Apparently, math is not a favorite subject among the good scientists of ANS either. They provided an exact number, but were still wrong.
The actual number is 393 and as more nuclear plants continue to close while others struggle to complete construction, that number is more likely to shrink than grow.
Both Amano and the ANS are counting (or in Amano's case, rounding) all of Japan's 43 workable reactors as if they are operating. Only two have been switched back on since the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. If they wanted to count reactors that are "operable," they could potentially get away with the conflation, although it's highly unlikely that all of Japan's reactors will ever come back online.
So what did Amano and the ANS really mean? According to the AP story, Amano asserted that "at least 30 developing countries are seriously considering the use of nuclear power."
Considering? Many of us seriously consider joining a gym on a daily basis. That doesn't mean we'll ever pay the dues and show up. And of course, in the case of nuclear power, those dues will run tens of billions of dollars, while the plant itself likely won't show up for a decade or more.
Of course the real - and stated - purpose of Amano's International Atomic Energy Agency is "to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies." It's a mission that's disturbing, oxymoronic and less likely to lead to triumph than to disaster.