Should renewable energy include nuclear?

The US, China, and dozens of other countries are meeting today in Egypt to chart the course of a new international agency aimed at promoting renewable energy.

Fred Dott/Greenpeace/Reuters
Greenpeace activists painted a skull surrounded by the symbol of radioactivity on the reactor dome of Unterweser nuclear power plant near Nordenham, Germany on June 22. The protest was aimed to draw attention to the lack of security at the plant in case of a plane crash or an airborne terrorist attack. The banner reads: "Nuclear power damages Germany."

A new global effort that aims to make renewable energy more accessible to every country in the world will launch on July 1st.

Governments are lining up to join the first agency that will advise them on how to make a renewable energy transition. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has attracted 108 countries, including the United States and China, which are both expected to announce their membership this week, in a move that experts say could boost the agency's credibility, since both countries are leaders in renewable energy.

But supporters worry that IRENA could be undermined by countries that are trying to promote nuclear power as a solution to climate change and dwindling oil reserves. Today, members will meet in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt to vote on a director general for the group and decide which country will host the agency's headquarters.

Currently, a leading alliance between France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is forming. French ministerial official Helene Pelosse is a nominee for IRENA'S director general and the UAE is lobbying to host its headquarters in Abu Dhabi. IRENA advocates say if the alliance succeeds, the agency would become "nuclear tainted."

France pushes nuclear as 'low-carbon technology'

France generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. It's also one of the world's largest providers of nuclear technology and expertise. Since 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has signed multibillion-dollar nuclear deals with the UAE, Qatar, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco.

At the same time, France is promoting nuclear as a form of renewable power because it emits low levels of carbon dioxide. When the European Union defined its long-term target for renewable energy production last year, it tried to include nuclear power in the definition of renewable energy, a move that was rejected by EU members.

France is also advocating to power the Mediterranean region using "low-carbon technology." IRENA supporters worry that under French leadership, the agency will support both renewables and nuclear options together.

Most discussions separate the two because renewable energy is defined as naturally replenishing resources, like solar or wind, which don't produce waste. Nuclear power is dependent on finite uranium resources, and produces radioactive waste that has to be isolated and stored for thousands of years.

"Advocates of nuclear try to avoid these essential differences by linking these two forms of energy under the umbrella term 'low-carbon technology,'" says Dr. Doerte Fouquet, Director of the European Renewable Energy Federation. "People forget that emitting zero CO2 is only one of the characteristics that defines a renewable source of energy."

Renewables tied to oil

The US, Japan, Britain, and France are actively signing nuclear power cooperation agreements with the UAE and they're expected to back Abu Dhabi's bid to headquarter the agency, analysts say.

"Their support for Abu Dhabi as IRENA's headquarters is linked to these agreements and a secure supply of oil," says IIda Tetsunari, advisor to Japan's Minister of Environment and executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.

IRENA supporters say that would contradict its founding purpose to set the foundations for a renewable energy economy.

"Are the original goals of IRENA being co-opted so that renewables get pushed aside by a nuclear agenda – 'sprinkling some renewables on top of our nuclear power'?" asks Dr. Eric Martinot, an international expert on renewable energy markets and former World Bank energy officer.

The UAE has a 7 percent future target for renewable energy and is planning to build Masdar, a city powered only by renewable resources. The Emirates claim that their vast solar potential is not enough to power the rest of the UAE and are looking to nuclear power to fill the gap.

"Since the 1970s, scientists have shown that renewable energy can satisfy the energy needs of the entire world, but these studies get systematically ignored. IRENA will change this," says Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Parliament, and pioneer of the agency.

The case for Germany

Many supporters say the better picks to host and lead the agency are Bonn, Germany, where the concept of IRENA was born, says Hans Jurgen Koch, member of Denmark's climate and energy ministry.

In both countries building new nuclear plants is illegal. Instead, they've focused on introducing new policies to encourage renewable energy generation. Germans can access interest-free loans to buy solar panels and get paid to feed renewable energy to the grid. The country has 300,000 green jobs, and is hoping to double its share of renewable energy power to 30 percent by 2020, four times more the UAE's target.

Dr. Scheer, who has been fighting to establish the agency since the 1990s, says the founding of IRENA took off when the German government sought support of like-minded countries. "This was the only way to avoid the veto power of countries with strong nuclear or fossil interests, who have stopped IRENA in the past," he says. "IRENA could be designed as a lame duck or it could promote renewable energy acceleration everywhere. This is the case for decision."

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