Is it green, or forever toxic? Nuclear rift at climate talks

Nov 4, 2021, 2:16 AM | Updated: 2:25 am
A worker sprays a layer of cement protection in a tunnel for radioactive waste in an underground la...

A worker sprays a layer of cement protection in a tunnel for radioactive waste in an underground laboratory run by Andra, an agency that manages the waste, in Bure, eastern France, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Nuclear power is a central sticking point as negotiators plot out the world’s future energy strategy at the climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

(AP Photo/Francois Mori)

SOULAINES-DHUYS, France (AP) — Deep in a French forest of oaks, birches and pines, a steady stream of trucks carries a silent reminder of nuclear energy’s often invisible cost: canisters of radioactive waste, heading into storage for the next 300 years.

As negotiators plot out how to fuel the world while also reducing carbon emissions at climate talks in Scotland, nuclear power is a central sticking point. Critics decry its mammoth price tag, the disproportionate damage caused by nuclear accidents, and radioactive leftovers that remain deadly for thousands of years.

But increasingly vocal and powerful proponents — some climate scientists and environmental experts among them — argue that nuclear power is the world’s best hope of keeping climate change under control, noting that it emits so few planet-damaging emissions and is safer on average than nearly any other energy source. Nuclear accidents are scary but exceedingly rare — while pollution from coal and other fossil fuels causes death and illness every day, scientists say.

“The scale of what human civilization is trying to do over the next 30 years (to fight climate change) is staggering,” said Matt Bowen, of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. “It will be much more daunting if we exclude new nuclear plants — or even more daunting if we decide to shut down nuclear plants all together.”

Many governments are pushing to enshrine nuclear energy in climate plans being hashed out at the conference in Glasgow, known as COP26. The European Union, meanwhile, is debating whether to label nuclear energy as officially “green” — a decision that will steer billions of euros of investment for years to come. That has implications worldwide, as the EU policy could set a standard that other economies follow.

But what about all that waste? Reactors worldwide produce thousands of tons of highly radioactive detritus per year, on top of what has already been left by decades of harnessing the atom to electrify homes and factories around the world.

Germany is leading the pack of countries, mainly within the EU, standing firmly against labeling nuclear as “green.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration supports nuclear power, China has a dozen reactors under construction — and even Japan is promoting nuclear energy again, 10 years after the disaster at its Fukushima power plant.

But nowhere in the world is as reliant on nuclear reactors as France, which is at the forefront of the pro-nuclear push at the European and global level. And it’s among leading players in the nuclear waste industry, recycling or reprocessing material from around the world.

South of the World War I battlefields of Verdun, trucks bearing radioactivity warning stickers pull into a waste storage site near the village of Soulaines-Dhuys. They’re repeatedly checked, wiped and scanned for leaks. Their cargo — compacted waste stuffed into concrete or steel cylinders — is stacked by robotic cranes in warehouses that are then filled with gravel and sealed with more concrete.

The agency that manages the waste, Andra, knows its scares people. “I cannot fight against people’s fears. Our role is to guarantee the safety of people and the environment and the workers on the site,” said spokesperson Thierry Pochot.

The storage units hold 90% of France’s low- to medium-activity radioactive waste, including tools, clothing and other material linked to reactor operation and maintenance. The site is designed to last at least 300 years after the last shipment arrives, when the radioactivity of its contents is forecast to be no higher than levels found in nature.

For longer-life waste — mainly used nuclear fuel, which remains potentially deadly for tens of thousands of years — France is laying the groundwork for a permanent, deep-earth repository beneath corn and wheat fields outside the nearby stone-house hamlet of Bure.

Some 500 meters (yards) below the surface, workers carry out tests on the clay and granite, carve tunnels and seek to prove that the long-term storage plan is the safest solution for future generations. Similar sites are under development or study in other countries, too.

If the repository wins French regulatory approval, it would hold some 85,000 metric tons (94,000 tons) of the most radioactive waste produced “from the beginning of the nuclear era until the end of existing nuclear facilities,” said Audrey Guillemenet, geologist and spokesperson for the underground lab.

“We can’t leave this waste in storage sites on the surface,” where it is now, she said. “That is secure, but not sustainable.”

The 25 billion euro ($29 billion) cost of the proposed repository is already built into budgeting by French utilities, Guillemenet said. But that’s just one piece of the staggering cost of building and operating nuclear plants, and one of the reasons that opposition abounds.

All around Bure, street signs are replaced with graffiti reading “Nuclear is Over,” and activists camp out at the town’s main intersection.

Greenpeace accuses the French nuclear industry of fobbing off waste on other countries and covering up problems at nuclear facilities, which industry officials deny. Activists staged a protest last week in the port of Dunkirk, as reprocessed uranium was being loaded onto a ship for St. Petersburg, demanding an end to nuclear energy and more research into solutions for existing waste.

“Nuclear waste … needs to be dealt with,” Bowen said. But “with fossil fuels, the waste is pumped into our atmosphere, which is threatening us from the risks of climate change and public health impacts from air pollution.”

Some prominent scientists now embrace nuclear. They argue that over the past half-century, nuclear power stations have avoided the emission of an estimated 60 billion tons of carbon dioxide by providing energy that otherwise would have come from fossil fuels.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry says he’s changed his early career opposition to nuclear because of the greater necessity to cut emissions.

“People are beginning to understand the consequences of not going nuclear,” said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT. Amid a “growing awareness of the rise of climate risks around the world, people are beginning to say, ‘that’s a bit more frightening than nuclear power plants.'”

Some activists want to end nuclear energy today, and others want to phase it out soon. But Emanuel noted examples of countries or states that shut nuclear plants before renewables were ready to take up the slack — and had to return to coal or other planet-choking energy sources.

The current energy crunch is giving nuclear advocates another argument. With oil and gas costs driving an energy price crisis across Europe and beyond, French President Emmanuel Macron has trumpeted “European renewables and, of course, European nuclear.”

The waste, meanwhile, isn’t going away.

To make radioactive garbage dumps less worrying to local residents, Andra organizes school visits; one site even hosts an escape game. Waste storage researchers are readying for all kinds of potential future threats — revolution, extreme weather, even the next Ice Age, Guillemenet said.

Whatever happens in Glasgow, “whether we decide to go on with the nuclear energy or not,” she said, “we will need to find a solution for the management of that nuclear waste” that humankind has already produced.

___

Associated Press writers Frank Jordans and Ellen Knickmeyer in Glasgow, Scotland, contributed.

___

Follow AP’s climate coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/climate.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

The Trump Organization's former Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg departs court, Friday, Au...
Associated Press

Trump Org. CFO expected to plead guilty in NY tax case

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s longtime finance chief is expected to plead guilty as soon as Thursday in a tax evasion case that is the only criminal prosecution to arise from a long-running investigation into the former president’s company, three people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Case against Alex Jones can proceed, Connecticut judge says

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — A federal bankruptcy judge on Monday cleared the way for a defamation lawsuit in Connecticut to proceed against Infowars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The case was filed by relatives of some victims of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Jones has falsely claimed the […]
18 hours ago
FILE - Farmer John Hawk looks over his land as his seed onion fields are watered in Holtville, Cali...
Associated Press

Deadline looms for western states to cut Colorado River use

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Banks along parts of the Colorado River where water once streamed are now just caked mud and rock as climate change makes the Western U.S. hotter and drier. More than two decades of drought have done little to deter the region from diverting more water than flows through it, depleting […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Coroner: Central Illinois plane crash killed Santa Fe couple

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — A coroner Monday identified a Santa Fe, New Mexico, couple as the two people killed when a single-engine plane crashed on a roadway in central Illinois. Killed in the crash Saturday in the small community of Hanna City were 75-year-old pilot James Everson and 67-year-old Lisa Evanson, Peoria County Coroner Jamie […]
18 hours ago
FILE - This aerial photo shows part of the Bonanza Creek Ranch film-set in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. ...
Associated Press

Medical investigator rules Baldwin set shooting an accident

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The fatal film-set shooting of a cinematographer by actor Alec Baldwin last year was an accident, according to a determination made by New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator following the completion of an autopsy and a review of law enforcement reports. The medical investigator’s report was made public Monday by […]
18 hours ago
FILE - Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, smiles as he plays bridge following ...
Associated Press

Buffett’s firm buys more Apple, Amazon while betting on oil

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Warren Buffett’s company bet more on high-tech darling Apple and e-commerce giant Amazon during the second quarter, while also investing billions in old-school oil producers Occidental Petroleum and Chevron. Berkshire Hathaway detailed all its second-quarter investments Monday in a new filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wall Street follows Berkshire’s […]
18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Here are 4 signs the HVAC unit needs to be replaced

Pool renovations and kitchen upgrades may seem enticing, but at the forefront of these investments arguably should be what residents use the most. In a state where summertime is sweltering, access to a functioning HVAC unit can be critical.
...
Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
...
CANVAS ANNUITY

Best retirement savings rates hit 4.30%

Maximize your retirement savings with guaranteed fixed rates up to 4.30%. Did you know there is a financial product that can give you great interest rates as you build your retirement savings and provide you with a paycheck for life once you retire? It might sound too good to be true but it is not; this product is called an annuity.
Is it green, or forever toxic? Nuclear rift at climate talks