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Like China, Europe is eating our lunch.

March 16, 2011

The EC GHG reduction roadmap.

Way back last week, before Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and continuing nuclear crisis, the European Commission released its “roadmap for moving to a low carbon economy in 2050.” It’s an impressively ambitious policy, with a goal of reducing GHGs by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Of course, this nearly complete decarbonization of the energy sector will necessarily entail huge changes and investments in low-carbon electricity generation, which would mean more wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and nuclear. At Columbia Law School’s Climate Law Blog, Daniel Firger provides a great, detailed breakdown of the roadmap and notes that the roadmap’s reliance on unproven technology (carbon capture and sequestration) and unstable situations (the much-hypothesized North African PV solar farm) means that Europe’s decarbonization goal will be difficult to achieve.

Much has been made of the news that Germany and other European countries are scrutinizing their nuclear energy sectors, particularly Germany’s temporary shutdown of seven nuclear reactors. Even the ravenously-growing China has temporarily halted its nuclear plans. Meanwhile, a lively debate has cropped up on the future of nuclear energy policy in the U.S., even in the otherwise distracted halls of Congress. The Obama Administration is apparently holding its line on new nuclear, as Energy Secretary Chu testified today that their position on the budget request for new plants hasn’t changed. In contrast, Craig Severance at Climate Progress argues that new nuclear fails the “practical and affordable” test. In laying out a new clean energy plan meeting President Obama’s goal of 80% clean electricity generation by 2035, Severance points out that new nuclear is an “unproven cost” – a significant one, at that:

If we tried to build all new nuclear plants to fill this same generation need, the total bill to replace just those retiring coal plants would likely exceed $1.2 trillion dollars.

Energy experts like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Climate Progress have been arguing for years that nuclear power in the U.S. is unsafe and under-regulated – and would put American taxpayers on the hook if a safety lapse were to occur. Writing at the Times, UCS nuclear engineer David Lochbaum notes:

We know that earthquakes can cause fires at nuclear reactors, and U.S. reactor safety studies conclude that fire can be a dominant risk for reactor core damage by disabling primary and back-up emergency systems. Yet dozens of nuclear reactors in the U.S. have operated for years in violation of federal fire protection regulations with no plans to address these safety risks anytime soon.

How will the Japanese crisis and its consequent refocusing on nuclear power affect Europe’s roadmap? Well, as Firger put it, European leaders will have to “reexamine their assumptions” about nuclear. Adding more (and apparently needed) safety measures to nuclear plants will only increase the cost of this already expensive type of electricity generation, which might make alternative sources more feasible. In the shorter term, the situation in Japan means major disruptions in supply chains, especially in the high-tech industry, suggesting that things might also get bumpy for high-tech, low-carbon renewable energy sources.

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