It has been a long time since I was moved to write a blog, perhaps because I feel that I have already addressed many of the major issues, and I do not like to just repeat myself. However, the recent reports that the European Union (EU) is considering allowing nuclear power and natural gas to be added to the list of "green technologies," but with "conditions," has me disturbed enough to break my silence.
As the Reuters article notes, the EU is responding to pressure from a number of countries to consider nuclear power and natural gas in its taxonomy of "green technologies," but it is trying to address the opposing pressures of the anti-nuclear countries by imposing conditions that appear to be tailor-made to make it extremely difficult for a country to comply. Specifically, "the project has [to have] a plan, funds and a site to safely dispose of radioactive waste." Since we know that disposal of radioactive waste has been a political football in many countries for years, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what is likely to happen. Or not happen.
I can't object to requiring a technology to consider the full life-cycle impacts. BUT...if nuclear power is required to do this, why not wind energy and solar energy? While the wind and the sun may be free and clean, we can't get usable amounts of energy from them without creating a lot of other impacts. Numerous reports have documented the rare materials needed, and the wastes generated, by wind and solar energy. In fact, given the low density of these energy sources, the amount of materials that are required to build the structures and systems to capture these distributed energy sources is huge. These materials need to be mined and fabricated to build windmills or solar panels, and disposed of at the end of the lives of the windmills and solar power plants. Some of the materials used may be scarce and are currently available largely from places like China, which we do not want to depend on for basic energy needs, and many are potentially hazardous to human health and to the environment.
There are some requirements for natural gas plants as well. They must replace something more polluting, which is a good thing. And there are emission standards--at the power plant itself--that assure that more advanced natural gas technologies are used. However, once again, they don't take the full life cycle into consideration. Specifically, they don't include consideration of methane emissions at the point of extraction, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. And for natural gas, too, there is a supply issue. With Russia being a major supplier of natural gas to some European countries, we have already seen that it can easily be used for political advantage.
If anyone who has followed my blog thinks that I have mentioned all of this before, indeed I have. I probably wouldn't have addressed the issue again, except for the fact that the EU is about to go down a bizarre and counterproductive path. Don't get me wrong. I think it is fine if the EU wishes to consider the whole life cycle of energy sources. And it's a good idea to require some plan to assure that there will be financing for end-of-life requirements. In fact, these conditions are probably appropriate. I just think that it is important for all energy sources to be treated equally, and that these same conditions are applicable for addressing the materials needs for wind and solar systems. That would be the best outcome for the people of the EU and for their environment.
But going forward with a plan that imposes requirements on one technology and not on another strikes me as the worst of all worlds. The people of Europe are likely to be saddled with an energy mix that they believe is "clean" and "renewable," but that will turn out to be unreliable, costly, and that, in the end, will leave future generations with a huge quantity of highly hazardous waste. And probably with nowhere to dispose of it.