He was interviewed for eureporter by Alexandra Gladysheva.
Nowadays around 60 nuclear power plants are under construction in the world. More than 400 are in operation, but to solve energy and ecological problems we will have to do more. Of course Chernobyl, Three Mile Island in 1979 and more recently Fukushima cases are frightening, but each time it is left behind, because in the long term we have no solution except the best one.
What makes the difference between energy sources?
What makes the difference between nuclear energy and carbon-based energy: gas, oil or coal? It takes only 1 gram of uranium to make as much energy as a ton of oil does, so it’s a factor of 1/1 000 000 – a palpable difference. It means that 1 million times less raw material is taken from the soil and at the other end of the chain we will produce one million times less waste. That’s when you count the tons, actually. When you think about waste, the factor gets even more important since the waste product of the carbon combustion is the CO2, which is a gas, whereas the waste from the nuclear fuel combustion is much denser, so can be easily contained and not emitted into the ecosystems. In this case it is not the factor 1/1 000 000, but a factor of several billions.
Individual approach for each country’s energy needs
I don’t think the answer for all the countries is the same. There is the hydraulic energy, which is, to my mind, the best among renewables. People always talk about wind turbines and solar energy, but hydropower is more interesting, and it is much easier to produce water energy from in a profitable manner. I should note that today the hydraulic energy produces far more electricity than wind energy in the world. In addition, it has other advantages over other renewables: it is more constant, less intermittent, and, in some cases, we could even store it.
Ideal energy mix of each country can be different. For example, there are countries like Austria and Costa Rica, where hydropower is sufficient to cover all (or nearly all) electricity needs, for them, there is no need of nuclear power. But I should remind my readers that these are small countries. The bigger countries have bigger appetites. For them, the hydraulic is not enough: it must necessarily be a mix with something else. Up to now this “something else” was a carbon-based source (gas, oil, coal), but actually we realize that there are impacts as pollution and global warming. Therefore, nuclear energy is a better solution because it does not lead to pollution or global warming. In my opinion, it is useful to do a mix of hydraulic power with nuclear energy everywhere where it is possible – now it is presented by such countries as Sweden (50% nuclear – 50% hydro) and France (80% nuclear, 15% hydro).
On the other hand, there are countries which for political and ideological reasons decide not to do nuclear, which leads them to make a lot of carbon-based energy. This is the case of such countries as Germany that has decided to phase out nuclear power, having a lot of coal to burn. Eventually, their electricity is much dirtier than in France. However, when we look back at the history of nuclear energy and nuclear decisions in Germany, we see that they have already changed their mind to the opposite 4 or 5 times. At the beginning they created a nuclear program, they had great atomic scientists, and even atomic science was born in Germany under the II world war. Then it was developed in other countries: in the United States, in Canada, then in other European countries. In my perception, it is absurd that they have stopped: Gerhard Schröder arrived and made an agreement with the German environmentalists to stop doing nuclear, then Angela Merkel arrived and decided to redo it, then she changed her mind. So, as every time it starts again and it reverses, next time they will open their eyes and realize that tomorrow if they don’t want to emit more carbon they will have no choice. It’s a purely political choice because the German have a lot of coal, they can generate electricity with it, but this energy comes at the price of pollution. The case of Germany is particularly hypocritical, because they pretend to be great ecologists by simultaneously emitting a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere.
There are other countries which have chosen to get out of nuclear power, like Switzerland. Sweden, Belgium have also talked about it. But these are just words. Sweden voted to phase out nuclear power in the early 1980s, since they increased the nuclear energy production, shutting down one or two reactors that were the oldest, but increasing the productivity of other reactors to such an extent that today they produce more nuclear energy than when they voted against nuclear power. Thus, it is clear that these are words which are not followed by acts. In Belgium and Switzerland we find the same thing. When a politician makes a promise, sometimes he holds it, sometimes he does not, it depends on the country and the politician. When a politician makes a promise to be made in 20 years, beyond the end of his political mandate, it may indicate that he does not believe much in the promise he is making.
Electric cars – mainstream of future years
Another up-to day issue for modern Europe is elecric cars’ growing popularity. Electric cars are much more eco-friendly than cars running on gasoline, but they are yet in the minority. Not only these cars comply with the Paris agreements (COP21), but also they have many advantages. Personally, I have been driving the electric car (Renault Zoé) for 5 years, emitting no carbon, I have a house with solar panels on the roof, and I recharge my electric car with the electricity produced by these panels. Their first advantage lies in terms of pollution because carbon is not burnt, the atmosphere is not polluted and the precious carbon resources are safe and sound for future generations, who will need it for the plastic industry and plastic recycling. It doesn’t fit into the sustainable development to burn our oil resources in 50 years, whereas it took 800 million years for the nature to produce it. Oil-burning is a one-time thing, there will be two or three generations who will burn everything. On the contrary, with recycling our economies would be greener; we will reduce our needs and make the whole process sustainable.
Considering the batteries’ technical performance, until the last few years it wasn’t sufficient in comparison with gasoline cars, but actually their capacity is progressing in high speed. I bought my electric car in early 2013; today the same model has the battery twice powerful, thus, in four years the battery power doubled. It’s very probable that between 2017 and 2021 the capacity of such batteries will double again, and, taking into account that the speed of recharging also increases, soon we’ll have totally competitive and efficient electric cars compared to those with gasoline.
3 steps towards decarbonization
At the same time, to feed these electric cars we have to produce clean electricity on a larger scale. To my mind, we have no choice but to increase the production of nuclear energy, which is clean and environmentally friendly with safe NPPs – it perfectly meets the needs of clean transport. It was already defined by COP21 agreements where France was taken as an energy model: the country that uses hydropower and complements it with nuclear.
It is the first step – to decarbonize the electricity production. The second step is to decarbonize the transport sector – the biggest factor of pollution, and the third step is to decarbonize households. From my personal experience I can say that I’ve built my eco-friendly economical house myself; it has well-insulated walls, special systems for ventilation, for water-heating and house-heating, it consumes only electricity, never uses gas. Those are the 3 main steps of economy decarbonization. I insist that anywhere in the world one can have a zero-carbon lifestyle and at the same time enjoy modern and comfortable life. There is also a German model with the investments enhancement in solar and wind power, but, unfortunately, this model doesn’t work properly, because these sources are intermittent and unproductive at the national level. Our goal is to find a solution that makes it possible to produce cheap electricity in bulk – nuclear is the solution. It can be easily implemented in all countries: often there is a river for cooling, if there is no river, we take the air from the atmosphere to cool down the NPP. To power electric vehicles and produce clean energy, we can construct several additional NPPs, but not many, because the French already have 58 reactors. My idea is that electric cars can be recharged at night when electricity is available in abundance.
Common work leads to faster progress
Touching upon the international cooperation in nuclear sector, I think that the Russian-French cooperation is essential for the reactors’ construction, especially when it comes to the 4th generation reactors (Russia and France are both leaders in this area). Actually, there are 2 types of reactors: conventional – generation 3+ and advanced – generation 4. In my opinion, fast-breeder reactors of the 4th generation are the reactors of the future, because of their proven utility around the world: BN-600, BN-800 in Russia, Phénix and Superphénix in France stopped for political reasons. Thus, the international cooperation and the further research in this direction should be promoted, since the 4-generation reactors have already proven their functionality and their practical value in the future.
With respect to ITER project, I think it is worthwhile to continue the research and, as since the research is costly, work with the international team to share costs. However, for the moment its practical value has not yet been demonstrated. In my vision, with such a high cost coupled with rather hypothetical results, it would be more reasonable to invest less in such huge machines like ITER but continue the research and spend more money on reactors of the current or the 4th generation to improve them.
Since Russia and France are both leaders in the nuclear field, who succeeded in closing the nuclear cycle with fuel recycling, I think that’s pity that cooperation in the framework of the EU-Russia group on the development and security of nuclear power has been dismantled. To be frank, Rosatom’s reputation in the EU has suffered a lot after Chernobyl, but reactors built today are absolutely different from the reactors of the past, it is not those old RBMK reactors, but the ones with secure containment vessels. Thankfully, the Russians have learned the lesson of the past and have created new reactors, which are safe and relatively cheap. Thus, actually this cooperation becomes essential for the future of the humanity; it is natural that if we work together, we’ll progress faster to achieve the best solutions. If nuclear energy is to be repressed and not developing, it is everyone who will be in delay, each country individually as well. On the other hand, if we work together, everybody wins; each country will be stronger and more independent in terms of energy.
ABOUT BRUNO COMBY
Graduated from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris in 1980, has an advanced degree in nuclear physics from National University of Advanced Technology in Paris.
Was a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris, gave lectures on health, environment and energy for environment specialists, physicians, students and professors, research and industry workers, public institutions and the general public.
He is an author of 10 books on environment and health, which are known world-wide and translated into English, German, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Czech, Romanian, Spanish and Portuguese. He participated in more than 1500 radio and TV presentations.
In 1993 he created the Bruno Comby Institute (http://www.comby.org), promoting a natural and sustainable lifestyle.
In 1996 he founded the “Association of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy” (AEPN). This non-profit organization has over 5000 members and supporters with local correspondents in more than 40 countries.
In 1999 he was attributed a prize of the French Nuclear Society (SFEN) and the French Atomic Forum (FAF) for his work in the field of nuclear power and environment protection.