Ten years after Fukushima, nuclear power grows with China and the climate crisis

In March 2011, when the Japanese Fukushima power plant disaster horrified the world, the business future of nuclear power was at least uncertain.

Germany announced the end of its atomic power plant program, Japan closed its 33 reactors for review, 3 of which melted their hearts after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, environmental groups said they had eventually recognized in their advocacy for a world without nuclear energy.

Ten years later, after a fall, the global output of its nuclear power plants returned to pre-Fukushima indices. There are 2,750 TWh (terawatt-hours), compared to 2,720 TWh in 2010.

And the trend is growth, driven by the need to reduce global carbon emissions and China’s ambitious energy program.

At its annual legislative meeting, called Two Sessions, Xi Jinping’s government set a target to increase nuclear output by 27 percent by 2025.

Of the 53 power plants under construction around the world, according to the World Nuclear Association, the largest contingent (11) is Chinese. In 2020, there were 441 civil reactors in operation on the planet.

The plan is seen as central to China’s ambition to achieve maximum carbon emissions by 2030 and to be a neutral country in this regard by 2060. The fall of the global economy with the pandemic is seen as an opportunity to rearrange the house in the climate.

It is the most polluting country in the world, according to data from the International Energy Agency in 2020, responsible for 28% of global CO2 emissions into the atmosphere – the United States comes in second, with 15%.

This is the price of having become one of the factories in the world: since 1990, carbon emissions have increased by 356% in the country, the world’s second largest economy behind the USA.

Today, only 4.7% of the electricity consumed in China is of nuclear origin, 2/3 of the country’s energy coming from ultra-coal.

President and climate activist Joe Biden’s country, meanwhile, produces 19.4 percent of its electricity from 94 nuclear power plants, the world’s largest park. Annual production has been stable since 2010, and closed 2019 at 830 THh.

Not everyone is happy with the Chinese plan. The environmental group Greenpeace advocates that the world focus on renewables, like solar and wind, but this comes up against their natural intermittence and the still high cost due to the small scale.

Once ignited and powered, a nuclear reactor generates virtually eternal energy without emitting CO2. Of course, mining and processing the uranium it uses as fuel is included, but that’s a very small fraction compared to other polluting sources.

Using open sources on mortality and accidents linked to polluting sources, the Our World in Data website compared the effects of energy matrices on an average European city, with around 188 thousand inhabitants with the usual consumption profile on the continent. .

According to the count, 25 people died prematurely a year from coal, 18 from oil, 3 from gas. It would take 14 years for someone to die from nuclear power, 29 years from wind power, 42 years from hydroelectric power and 53 years from solar power.

In other words, this applies to nuclear power plants and their relationship with the environment is basically the rule of the airplane: it is a very safe mode of transport, as long as you are not inside when it falls. .

In a conversation with Folha last year, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, pointed out this contradiction of those who demand effective action against climate change associated with CO2 in the atmosphere.

For him, the nuclear advantage is obvious. Today, around 10% of the electricity consumed in the world comes from nuclear reactors, while 38% comes from coal, 23% from natural gas and 16% from hydropower plants. The alternatives (biomass, solar and wind) total 7%.

As an energy source for the economy, oil remains unbeatable at 31%, coal at 25% and gas at 23%. The atom gets 4% of the cake, behind biomass (7%) and hydroelectric (6%). Wind and sun represent 3%.

The German case is an example of the challenge posed by the fear of a new Fukushima – not to mention the worst accident in history, in 1986 at the Chernobyl plant (Soviet Union, now Ukraine). In 2010, Berlin was the fifth largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, with 140 TWh.

In 2011, the country had already decided to reduce its carbon footprint. The accident accelerated the process of eliminating the nuclear matrix, under pressure from the Parliament’s green bench, and the plan is to shut down the six remaining plants in 2022.

The problem is that carbon emissions have remained relatively stable, dropping from 731 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011 to 677 million tonnes in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.

Interestingly, countries with a strong environmental movement, such as France and Sweden, are heavily dependent on nuclear power: 71%, the world’s largest, and 39%, respectively.

Country where Fukushima took place, Japan has gradually rewired its factories. It was the third atomic energy producer in 2010, with 286 TWh and 33 factories. In 2015, it produced only 4 TWh, three and a half times less than Brazil and its two units at Angra dos Reis.

In 2019, the latest data available, it had already risen to 70 TWh, after having activated 9 of its nuclear power plants.

It is a complicated process because the trauma of accidents is very high. Radiation is a very dangerous by-product to deal with, and years of construction with design flaws (like at Chernobyl) or in inappropriate places (Fukushima) put a permanent shadow on the nuclear matrix.

In the wake of Chernobyl, the primary safety of reactors in the former Soviet Union has been improved, but there are gaps. While nine RBMK units, the same one that exploded in 1986, still exist in Russia, first and second generation VVER models follow around the world.

One of the most feared by experts is the one that equips the Metsamor plant in Armenia. In a region prone to devastating earthquakes, near the capital Yerevan, it was almost the target of Azerbaijani forces in the inter-country conflict in 2020. As it supplies a third of the country’s energy, it must stay where it is. it turns out that.

The issue of waste is central, statistically more complex than that of accidents per se. Atomic waste is the fuel spent by reactors, recyclable to some extent.

In China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, revealed at this week’s meeting in Beijing, specific work is also planned on technologies that facilitate waste reprocessing.

The most harmful waste, spent fuel that cannot be recycled, must be buried hundreds of meters away for millennia. They constitute a real environmental problem, even if 99% of the waste is easier to handle, filters, parts and protective clothing used.

Finally, more intangible, there are the prejudices that can be associated with tragedies and also with nuclear weapons, which occupy a similar scope in the popular imagination. The benefits of medical applications of radioactive isotopes, a third branch of nuclear power, are usually not so frightening – except when something goes wrong, such as during exposure to cesium-137 in Goiânia in 1987.

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