Interview with Yves Marignac

YvesMarignacPortada
YvesMarignacPortadaAnna Mateu

The nuclear debate has made a comeback in recent weeks in Valencia after the trial held against 16 Greenpeace activists and a photographer because of the protest held in Cofrentes on February 15, 2011, only a month before the Fukushima accident. A trial that ended this week in the acquittal of the accused, for whom two-year sentences were requested. In the end, only Greenpeace has been fined with 20,000 euros to cover for damages caused.

On the occasion of the events the environmental group has organised in support of their activists, we had the chance to talk with Yves Marignac, an expert on nuclear power that has been working on this field in France, a country that strongly depends on this type of energy with a total of 58 reactors spread throughout its territory. From the French headquarters of the Wise International agency in Paris, Yves Marignac has advised both the French government and environmental groups on energetic issues. Marignac is co-author of the Negawat Manifesto, where the French energy transition and a nuclear-power-free model based on renewable energy is outlined for 2050. The expert is sure that there is another, more efficient, more environmentally friendly and less costly energy model that involves forsaking nuclear power in favour of renewable energy in the short term.

You have claimed on several occasions that an expert cannot be for or against nuclear power, why?
I do not consider myself to be against nuclear energy. Being critical regarding nuclear power, which leads to stating that other energy options are less dangerous and more beneficial, rather than being against it in terms of political activism is something altogether different. If somebody is a fierce detractor and is sure to be fighting for a just cause this person will just hide any positive aspects regarding nuclear energy, while an expert cannot do that.

Which positions would be different as an expert or as an activist?
For example, regarding geological storage (burial of nuclear waste), a very important issue today. Detractors say that is not an option. Experts are required to state the fact that there is waste therefore we need a solution. Today, I do not think burial is a good solution, but it is the lesser of the evils. Thus, the position of the expert and the position of the activist lead to very different stances and discourses. Furthermore, activists seek to directly access the political sphere and face politicians in order to have an influence on decision-making policies, whereas experts advise politicians and decision makers, but do not claim having the right and final solution. It is in the interest of society that there is a real debate on nuclear power as well as the energy issue and it is imperative that experts are able to critically add something to it.

Then you are not against nuclear power, but you openly advocate for an energy transition towards a nuclear power plant-free scenario, why?
Our society is built around an energy model based on the logic of energy production rather than the service energy provides, and this why it relies on more concentrated energies, i.e. on fossil energies, which entails the problem of resource exhaustion and especially the problem of climate change. Nuclear power involves other specific problems: the risk of serious accidents, the issue of long-lived waste and the risk of proliferation. The current energy model is not sustainable and we must consider the transition to other models based on consumption control, which involves a more intelligent and efficient use of energy: how and why we use it. A model that involves being smart regarding resources and developing sustainable models as much as possible. This model today is renewable energy, although it is not without problems either. We should move towards global intelligence.

I understand that this model implies drastic changes in our way of life, are we citizens willing, or ready, to make this kind of changes?
It is complicated why society is totally intertwined with the energy model. The history of our development is marked by a successive access to different forms of energy, since the first domestication of renewable energy, and afterwards during the first industrial revolution with coal, and the second industrial revolution with oil, and finally with nuclear power. Access to these forms of energy has shaped our society. E.g., general access to low-cost oil to power vehicles has effectively abolished distances. Transporting goods for thousands of miles and living far from the job is not a problem anymore. But from the moment this model finds its limits -of impact on the environment, of technological risk- resources that were once cheap start to become more expensive. In France we have what we call energy poverty. An estimated eleven million French citizens do not get enough income to provide themselves with heating or commuting to work.

Yes, in Spain we have a similar problem, aggravated by the economic crisis.
It is not just an environmental limit; it is also an economic and social limit. From the moment that the system reaches a limit that is not sustainable, a change becomes necessary. It is a total illusion to think that our lifestyle will remain the same excluding oil and nuclear power. Carrying on with the same organisation and way of life will become increasingly more expensive, will destroy the environment, will result in more accidents and will also generate international tensions. Think of the situation oil causes in the Middle East, uranium in France, Mali or Nigeria, or gas in Ukraine. All of this leads to a world increasingly in crisis and to a less and less sustainable situation. It is a matter of political decision and collective maturity.

 

«The current energy model is not sustainable and we must consider the transition to other models based on consumption control, which involves a more intelligent and efficient use of energy»

 

 

«It is a total illusion to think that our lifestyle will remain the same excluding oil and nuclear power»

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

«The longer we wait, the more expensive our current system becomes and the less we manage to fund the energy transition»

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Anna Mateu
 

«Nuclear power involves specific risks and it is an ethical issue for society to decide whether these specific risks should be considered just as side effects and acceptable regarding climate change»


Despite this, the economic crisis in Spain has slowed down investment in renewable energy under the pretext that it is too expensive.

The change we are talking about clearly requires investment, but our biggest mistake is that we think about all this in the short term, rather than seeing it as an investment for the next twenty or thirty years, and a change for which society must pave the way. Instead, we see it as a cost, a burden. And this is quite tragic because the longer we wait, the more expensive our current system becomes and the less we manage to fund the energy transition.  Regarding renewable energy it is very simple. On the one hand, supplies of fossil fuels are decreasing and tensions to access them increase and prices will rise in the long term. The price of new nuclear reactors is also rising and maintaining existing reactors also requires increasing investments and this makes production more expensive, in turn. On the other hand, the price of renewable energy is decreasing.  Different types of renewable energy are already competitive. Wind energy, for instance, is highly developed in Spain, and the costs of solar energy or biomass do nothing but decrease. If we were not going through this recession, we would not think twice about investing in renewable energy. We do not think we can invest and this only strengthens and extends the crisis.

What do you think about the argument used in favour of nuclear power that claims it is a clean energy because it does not emit CO2 and therefore it does not contribute to climate change?
Climate change is undoubtedly a major problem, but it is not the only important environmental problem we have to face. This is an ethical debate. Nuclear power involves specific risks and it is an ethical issue for society to decide whether these specific risks should be considered just as side effects and acceptable regarding climate change. In addition, if we present nuclear power as a solution to climate change, we should increase ten times the number of existing reactors, which means having 4,000 reactors worldwide instead of 400. This would require a complex and expensive process. Military risks would also increase exponentially. It is interesting to recall the nuclear winter scenario studied by the American and Russian security services during the Cold War, which shows how the risk of proliferation can lead to nuclear war, which would be a lot worse for climate than climate change. It would mean a 95% loss of brightness and a 20 degree decrease in temperature. So when we talk about nuclear power in relation to climate change, we can say that both consumption control and the development of renewable energy is faster and more effective, and a lot less expensive in the long term, than using nuclear power to reduce emissions . The only issue that remains to be solved is whether the countries that already have nuclear reactors would be better off keeping and extending their lives to maintain relatively low CO2 emissions, while they develop renewable energy or if, on the contrary, it would be better to shut them down to accelerate the transition. This is an approach that loses sight of the ethical issue that could be discussed.

And in your opinion, what direction should these countries take?
There is a kind of contradiction between an energy model built around reactors and an energy model based on demand management and renewable energy. Nuclear power needs massive and continuous demand and a highly centralized network, while renewable energy and consumption control focus on demand rather than production and is a more general and flexible network. It is counterproductive to delay the closure of reactors because this slows down efficiency as well as the development of renewable energy. Our transition will not be as fast if we keep nuclear reactors for long.

You also emphasise the risks nuclear energy entails, do you think that Fukushima has somehow changed our perception of risk?
Certainly, there was a shock that lasted several weeks or months, and then it faded. Today, Fukushima is not so much in our minds and thoughts, but we have not returned to our previous state. On the one hand, nuclear authorities have grown more aware of the possibility of a major accident. On the other hand, the political community, actors of the territory, etc. are a lot more aware of the potential scope of the possible consequences. It is striking, because we know this since Chernobyl’s accident, but then it was considered a Soviet accident, which showed that we had to pay more attention but we never really thought it could happen to us. An accident like Fukushima’s, occurred in a democratic country and a very technologically advanced one like Japan, may happen here as well. As a result there has been a real change of perspective in areas close to nuclear power plants, not only in the traditional 10-km perimeter of contingency plans, but we would be talking easily about a 80-100 km perimeter.  In France, there is real action from territorial actors since emergency plans have been extended from 10 to 80 km. Awareness in case of accident and the effects it would cause in a ​​100 km perimeter has grown.

In Valencia we have a nuclear power plant in Cofrentes, just 80 km away from the city, and I have the feeling that there was no awareness raised after Fukushima.
In Valencia we are directly affected by Cofrentes. There is another aspect of risk around a nuclear facility and that is the impact on agricultural production. Of course in the case of a major accident there is a high risk of water pollution, and this would affect agricultural production of oranges, for example. But there would also be consequences in case of a slight accident, which does not necessarily involve migration of population or abandoning production because everything is contaminated. An accident involving radioactive emissions could be enough to spoil the image of the products of the region resulting in plummeting sales volumes, especially exports. This happened years ago in France in Tricastin, a city with a nuclear power plant and a uranium enrichment plant in the Rhone valley. There was an accident and uranium levels were found in water. There is a wine producing area named Côteux Tricastin and consumption rates fell dramatically, although the wine was not contaminated. But only the suspicion was enough. This resulted in producers renaming their designation of origin. In the event of a major accident, there is a risk for the population, but economic risk begins with a minor accident and suspicion.

Anna Mateu.Mètode’s Assistant Editor.
© Mètode 2014.

 

 

«It is counterproductive to delay the closure of reactors because this slows down efficiency as well as the development of renewable energy»

YvesMarignacLateralAnna Mateu

 

«Since Fukushima’s accident, nuclear authorities have grown more aware of the possibility of a major accident»

« In the event of a major accident, there is a risk for the population, but economic risk begins with a minor accident and suspicion»

© Mètode 2014

Cap de redacció de la revista Mètode.