Former Japanese PM Naoto Kan in Paris for Green Cross nuclear debate

It was a lively afternoon in Paris on 24 February as Green Cross brought both proponents and opponents of nuclear power in France together for a constructive dialogue between all parties on the issue.

The conference, “Four years after the Fukushima catastrophe: lessons learned”, was addressed by former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Kan led his country through the terrible events that followed the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, 2011 and has since become a committed anti-nuclear activist.

“Before the accident, my political position was favourable to the continued development of nuclear power, so long as the necessary precautions were taken – I even promoted the technology abroad,” said Kan. “But afterwards my thinking changed completely. For the rest of my mandate I committed to reducing Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy and developed laws to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Just like atomic bombs, nuclear energy is a technology we cannot entirely control. The experts tell us there is no such thing as a zero-risk nuclear power station. Effectively, natural disasters are always a possibility and should that risk be manifested all we can do is try to manage the consequences.”

Adam Koniuszewski, Chief Operating Officer of Green Cross International, put the discussion into the context of Green Cross’ work, starting in 1993, with the victims of such disasters as the Chernobyl meltdown.

“The founding president of Green Cross, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan share the sad experience of having both led their country through major nuclear disasters,” said Koniuszewski. “Our local presence and ongoing activities to help the communities impacted by radioactive contamination in Chernobyl and Fukushima gives us first-hand experience of the human and environmental consequences of nuclear disasters. This is why we are demanding more transparency and better governance around nuclear power and the risks involved, and a better assessment of its mounting costs. New plants are plagued with delays and cost overruns; the management of nuclear waste in increasingly burdensome and the cost of decommissioning plants is escalating. In the meantime renewable energy solutions are getting cheaper. Over the last five years the cost for utility scale solar has declined by 78 per cent, and by for wind by 58 per cent.”

In the subsequent roundtable discussion, the consequences of nuclear disaster were well illustrated by Yoshiko Aoki, a teacher from Fukushima – though now relocated to Tomiyoka. She described the experience from a resident’s perspective, the immense difficulty of reconstruction, and the ongoing cost to the people of Fukushima. Aoki is, as yet, unable to return home.

Sandrine Bélier, European Deputy from 2009 to 2014, made clear that there were definite parallels between the Japanese and French nuclear industries, drawing attention notably to the Fessenheim plant – which is both France’s oldest operating nuclear facility and located in an area known to be at risk of earthquakes and floods.

A more detailed look at the effects of nuclear disaster came from Dr Jonathan Samet, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the impacts of the Chernobyl Disaster over more than 25 years and now begun looking at Fukushima as well. Dr Samet has worked extensively with Green Cross, producing a study in 2014 available here.

A broader discussion on nuclear power and energy policy drew on contributions from Tetsunari Iida, Executive Director of the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP) in Tokyo, Christian Bataille, deputy and Vice-President of the Office Parlementaire d’Évaluation des Choix Scientifiques et Technologiques (OPECST), Valérie Faudon, Director of the Société Fançaise d’Énergie Nucléaire (SFEN), and Yves Marignac, Director of WISE-Paris.

Iida talked about the ability of renewables to respond to the needs of the national energy grid – how they are attracting massive private investment and growing significantly just as nuclear is winding down, and their excellent economic returns.

Bataille focused on the historic inheritance that France’s nuclear infrastructure represents, and the challenges and opportunities the country will face as it decides whether to stay the nuclear course or opt for change. He himself considers nuclear a necessary and desirable part of France’s energy portfolio.

With Denis Baupin (Deputy Mayor of Paris, representing the Green Party and responsible for the city’s environment policies) in the room, there was heated discussion about nuclear waste, end-of-life for nuclear facilities and the ongoing debate around France’s planned nuclear waste storage programme, CIGEO. Baupin also talked about risks of nuclear proliferation.

For Faudon, nuclear power is valuable as a “low-carbon” option for power generation.

“Today, we know that this is a solution that comes with risks – technological and with regard to proliferation,” said Faudron. “But, emissions-wise, it is a solution.”

She argued that nuclear power will need to remain a major part of France’s energy mix if Europe is to achieve its emissions reduction targets, pointing as an example to Germany’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels to replace the nuclear power it has decided to eliminate.

“Greenhouse gas emissions produced through nuclear power generation are barely higher than through renewable sources,” said Faudon. “And, certainly, they are much lower than for fossil fuels.”

In response, Marignac described the “négaWatt” plan for a realistic, integrated, low-carbon scenario that envisages a rapid move away from nuclear, pursuing instead a mix of efficiency, renewable sources and decentralization of energy storage and distribution.

Lively exchanges arose from audience questions, particularly on the subjects of disaster preparedness and the need to anticipate risks based on realistic assessments – not just nuclear operators’ self-assessments. The effect of Fukushima, which happened in an advanced country that was supposed to have strong safeguards, has been to bring the potential for shortcomings in planning and oversight into the public consciousness.

Kan had some closing thoughts, encouraging France to take the upcoming opportunity provided by ParisClimat 2015 to start moving away from nuclear power. He also recommended a much more comprehensive, transparent and democratic approach to preparing for a possible nuclear catastrophe.

“Zero-risk does not exist, and cost-effectiveness is a meaningless concern when weighed against the trauma and impact of a nuclear disaster,” said Kan.

Furthermore, Japan’s experience shows that nuclear power is not nearly as indispensable as its supporters claim. Following the Fukushima disaster, all of Japan’s nuclear reactors – providing 25 per cent of the country’s electricity – were shut down. In response, Japan managed to reduce national consumption from 65GW to 50GW and, as systems are built back up, many people are looking much more seriously at the opportunity to switch to increasingly attractive and cost effective renewable solutions. So far, local communities have taken the lead in putting renewable power sources in place.