Exclusive interview with Lucas Mediavilla in L'Express, 17 Oct 2020
Former nuclear opponent*, Zion Lights now supports the atom. President of Voices du Nucléaire, Myrto Tripathi is trying to mobilize French civil society on this subject. Interview croisée (joint interview).
Is nuclear power a chance for the climate? For several months and while the post-Covid recovery plans have given pride of place to the issue of energy transition, the debate around the role that the atom could play in the energy equation has continued to rise in civil society. In France obviously, given the historical weight played by the nuclear industry (around 70% of electricity production) and the government's stated desire to reduce this share to 50% by 2035.
Discussions are also exciting beyond our borders, in the United Kingdom for example, where the weight of nuclear power is certainly much less important (20% of production), but where the question of renewing the current fleet is acute. An activist in the environmental sector for about fifteen years, the British Zion Lights is one of the great figures of these debates. Former spokesperson for the association Extinction Rebellion, who was once opposed to nuclear power, has made a 180-degree turn* and is now convinced that the atom is essential to achieve climate objectives.
Former executive in the nuclear sector (at Areva and Framatome) which she left to take up the post of advisor to the former environment minister Brice Lalonde before becoming the leader of an environmental organization, Myrto Tripathi for her part created the association Les Voix du Nucléaire two years ago in France, to mobilize civil society in defense of nuclear energy. The two activists confide in the Express.
Zion, you worked for several years as a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, an organization in which you held an anti-nuclear position. After leaving this movement, you got involved with Environmental Progress, a pro nuclear association. What happened?
Zion Lights: It's a pretty natural evolution of my environmental awareness. I have been working as an activist for 15 years, and after warning for many years about climate risk, it seemed important to me to commit to workable solutions. Nuclear power is one of them.
In the Anglo-Saxon press, you still explain having been duped by certain activists on the climate impact of nuclear power ...
ZL: When you are involved in ecology, you are anti-nuclear in principle. You don't question that position, you just live with it. I was young and also believed without checking what people around me were saying about radiation and nuclear waste. Later, as I read up on this topic, I learned that these things were actually wrong. And I also found that the people I had campaigned with didn't want to hear the truth.
It's like climate denial, there is a kind of "nuclear denial" in the UK. Many people want to believe that it is possible to have an electric mix that runs on 100% renewable energy, which is wrong. And when I mention nuclear power as an option, it upsets them. However, things are moving in the right direction, we feel that there is a window of opportunity for dialogue on this subject, that countries are once again preempting this issue.
Hence the participation, with the Voices of nuclear power, in the Place de la République event in Paris at the end of September, which brings together members of civil society and experts to promote nuclear energy ...
ZL: Yes. Environmental Progress has the ambition to structure a worldwide movement of defenders of the nuclear cause. The timing is good enough. With the climate strikes, the movement around Greta Thunberg since 2018, we feel that young people are very concerned about the climate issue.
Myrto Tripati: The event was part of a larger movement, "Stand up for Nuclear" organized in 45 cities and several dozen countries. The underlying idea is to show that there is a significant part of the civilian population, representing nothing other than itself, which is openly pro nuclear. This makes it possible to break this image widely relayed by opponents, whether we are the instrument or the spokespersons of industrial lobbies. On the contrary, civil society has a real understanding of the benefits of nuclear power, namely an energy that contributes to the energy transition, to the improvement of air quality, to the creation of non-relocatable jobs, and of the production of low-cost electricity. The second goal is to end the taboo. The climate emergency requires us to talk about this subject. In France, nearly 86% of 18-34 year olds in France believe that this technology has a negative impact on the climate. It's just catastrophic. Because these young people, who are the decision-makers of today and tomorrow, place climate change at the heart of their concerns. We must do some teaching so that their choice is perfectly informed on this question.
The nuclear debate now seems very polarized and anchored in stone among the older generations. It seems that young people do not always have a religion on the subject. Is this also an opportunity for you?
M.T: In a sense, yes. The previous generation was marked in a profound way by the anti-nuclear movements (in Germany and in France, in particular) of the 1970s. These movements are, moreover, at the origin of the anti-nuclear feeling, which did not really exist in France. when the first power stations were created in the 1960s and 1970s. The younger generations can see that we have been living with nuclear power for decades now. They pragmatically understand that the fear that may have been legitimate when the big plans were launched never materialized. Finally, we must not forget that this generation was born with fakes news. They are very aware of the verification of information. However, the history of nuclear power has always been linked to fakes news. There is no industry that generates more false information, false beliefs, than this one.
ZL: In the United Kingdom, the public does not have such a strong opinion on the subject, not only the young people. They are not radically opposed, but not ardent supporters of the technology. So it is rather encouraging for our action. But we have a lot to do to convince, because the nuclear opposition speaks very loudly, and for much longer than us. I try to rebalance the balance by communicating a lot on social networks, in the press.
But nuclear is a technical subject. There are experts in each camp, and it is sometimes difficult for the general public to form an opinion, even more so to change ...
M.T: This is precisely why we created Les Voix du Nucléaire, we want to open the debate in a peaceful manner. Nuclear power is no more technical than all the technologies that surround us, planes, computers, smartphones. By making it technical, we prevent ourselves from talking about it and we leave the field open to opponents, who already have a wide resonance in public opinion.
ZL: There are people who will never change their mind on the subject. This is true for many questions. Several years ago I wrote a book about children, which had a chapter on vaccines. I was attacked by the anti-vaccines, which claimed that I was paid by Big Pharma. Most people have no scientific culture and impose their received ideas, their vague beliefs on you. When you take ownership of a topic, you need to be honest and humble. Go back to the library, study the subject in depth, not stay on the surface. The good news is that lately more and more scientists are coming out of their ivory towers to defend nuclear energy. It helps us a lot.
In the end, isn't the most important thing to convince politicians? Public impetus is fundamental in the construction of new power stations, because the private sphere alone cannot bear the costs. The short-termist logic in which we live is it not crippling for this industry?
M.T: Politics is essential indeed. Like any long-term infrastructure project, nuclear energy needs massive investments at launch. This is true for nuclear as well as for airports, train lines or the Philharmonie de Paris. The public authorities give manufacturers but also financiers the guarantee that the political decision will not modify their prospects for return on investment. So yes, short-termism is a real problem. The politicians are elected for 5 years, when the construction of a power station lasts in theory from 7 to 8 years. The nuclear subject is basically a technical and scientific subject which is held hostage by the politician. In our democracies, it is at the heart of many debates between parties. It is an instrument regularly used to change a vote, to forge alliances. But the real question is not so much that of political time. It is a battle of public opinion. If you have a majority of supporters, the cost of a positive decision on nuclear power taken by politicians is automatically lowered.
ZL: I speak regularly with our officials, they all support nuclear energy, including our Prime Minister. But when it comes to making important and long-term decisions, they fail to take the plunge. This is a real risk, because power plant projects are struggling to find funding, and some of our industrial partners, such as EDF, are reluctant to withdraw from the country for lack of impetus. Today, nuclear electricity represents 20% of our electricity mix, but by 2030 we will be shutting down 14 reactors. Two much more powerful reactors (Sizewell C and Hinkley Point C) are supposed to replace them ... but as things progress at the top of the state, there is hardly any chance of making it by this deadline.
But could this decline in nuclear power not be offset by solar and wind power? In the United Kingdom, as elsewhere in the world, these energies are becoming as competitive in terms of cost as new nuclear power, the cost of which has for example slipped in France at Flamanville. What do you say to those who consider nuclear power too expensive and too slow to produce?
M.T: I don't want to pit photovoltaics and wind power against nuclear power. All low carbon technologies make sense. But if we have to make a choice, then it seems to me that nuclear power is much more competitive in a context like that of the French electricity grid. Let me explain: the cost of the raw material is not the only factor to take into account when choosing an energy. Of course, the wind and the sun are free, but it is also necessary to take into account the construction of the electrical infrastructure to accommodate this decentralized production, to have the backup energies when you have neither wind nor sun and to assume the price that it costs you. Renewable advocates often forget to do this. We have to calculate on the whole system and not just the production costs.
ZL: It's the scarecrow used by anti-nuclear weapons, but that doesn't make sense to me. When you listen to the arguments of environmentalists, and even of a large part of the population, they explain that climate change has only one goal, the reduction of CO2 emissions. If we follow this logic, the question of costs is secondary. In the United Kingdom, we also have a problem with intermittent renewables. Recently, there was a heat wave which drastically reduced wind and therefore electricity production. We had to use electricity produced by coal. In the midst of a climate crisis. This is unacceptable. Coal is the worst solution in terms of air pollution, or for people who live near power plants. And it is ridiculous when there is a controllable solution, nuclear power, whose plants can provide carbon-free energy for 80 years. There is nothing that can compare to it.
There is also the issue of nuclear waste. Isn't that an insoluble problem in the nuclear equation?
ZL: We cannot deny the issue of nuclear waste. But this problem is also based on a tenacious myth. I was once anti-nuclear, and like everyone else, I had in mind this idea of a dirty industry, where waste was not recycled or generally poorly managed. Kind of like in The Simpsons. It's quite the opposite. The treatment of nuclear waste is one of the most restrictive in the world. In the Netherlands, they even have a museum where they store some very low radioactivity waste. It's interesting because they reverse the image associated with waste and break this image of Epinal of a poorly managed industry. Beliefs mainly due to pop culture. On the contrary, we never talk about the waste linked to the dismantling of solar panels, or the rare metal extraction process necessary for the construction of the panels that must be removed from the ground.
M.T: All human activities generate waste, CO2 is waste. For me this is a false debate. If you are concerned about the concept of waste, start by taking a look at the air pollution associated with coal-fired power plants. Every year, it kills 10,000 people in Europe. Take also the impact of plastic waste on biodiversity, chemical pollutants that we cannot always manage. These are not risks with a horizon of 100,000 years and whose realization is only hypothetical like the radioactivity linked to nuclear power. These are tangible, immediate facts. I would add that France had a program to reuse nuclear waste as fuel for reactors with its Astrid program. This one has been suspended ...
In France, the park is still aging, some power plants are reaching 40 years old, which could pose a safety problem ...
M.T: You have to distinguish between the age on paper and the age of the infrastructure. There is a lot of maintenance work on the power plants. And you have the Nuclear Safety Authority, an independent body from the industry, which gives approval for 10 years, every 10 years, to extend the lifespan of power plants. Moreover, the day before the closure of the Fessenheim plant (on June 29, Editor's note), which was the oldest plant at 43, this authority indicated that it was one of the best French plants. in terms of security.
France's desire to reduce the share of nuclear production to 50% of its electricity mix, or Belgium to get out of nuclear power within a few years, should make you jump.
M.T: It's a decision that makes no sense. We are going to reduce our production capacities of already low-carbon energy to replace it with two intermittent energies that are not calibrated to be used on a very large scale on the electricity grid. This is not justified for the climate, nor for security reasons, nor for economic reasons, and even less politically in the territories where these plants are located. This is in complete contradiction with the ambition of these two states to reduce their CO2 emissions. In Belgium, this will result in the opening of state-subsidized gas power stations. It's ridiculous.
ZL: I have an even more radical opinion. For me, every reactor shutdown is a crime against humanity in this context of climate crisis. Our planet is heating up, and every act that goes against the global decrease in emissions is in my opinion a crime against the planet. We are fortunate to have this technology. We should help developing countries like Africa or India to get it because they are the ones who are going to suffer the most from the effects of climate change, and they have no infrastructure to deal with it.
* Note: Zion Lights was not formerly opposed to nuclear energy. Extinction Rebellion is officially agnostic on climate solutions; however several of its most prominent spokespeople have spoken publicly against nuclear energy.