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Claude Haegi at the international Rodes Forum: « Energy, vital issue »

Claude Haegi at the international Rodes Forum: « Energy, vital issue »

A paper by Claude Haegi, President, Foundation for the Economy and sustainable Development of the Regions of Europe (FEDRE), delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum, October 5, 2012

This is with the same preoccupation, nourished by my long experience of local and regional representative, to remain both concrete and realistic, that I will touch directly the subject of this session, by dealing namely with the vital issue of energy. In fact, it is hard to imagine a liveable and prosperous world tomorrow, without energetic needs properly covered.

All the indicators say that these needs, far from declining, will on the contrary augment during the next decades, because of the growing share of big countries like China, Russia, India and Brazil, followed by entire continents like Africa which aspire to join them. In the western world, it is a reality that is too often underestimated.

Choices will have thus to be pragmatic and we will have to make a full use of the possibilities offered by technological innovations, under the permanent concern of a sustainable management of the planet.

During the 90s, in the years of big political changes in the Eastern part of Europe, the Council of Europe (I speak under the control of the former Secretary General of this organization, Mr. Schwimmer), worked hard to promote democracy in this transition period. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, which I chaired at that time, used to concentrate on two issues: environment protection and economic development. Economy and Ecology can be associated in a successful way. It was our conviction when we created, during a meeting in Ljubljana (Slovenia), the Foundation FEDRE for the sustainable development of the Regions of Europe in 1996.

The Rhodes World Public Forum has gone for 10 years in the same direction. But if we want to meet the climatic and environmental challenges, we have to find answers on energy issues.

Europe (Switzerland included) and the USA have proved since the Rio Conference in 1992 (where I was, representing the Geneva Canton) rather changing and hesitating on the matter. Fukushima was the peak of emotional response at the political level in some countries. With a varying degree of commitment and conviction, everyone wants to mitigate the greenhouse effect and tends to impose, without full understanding, western restrictive policies which do not have everywhere the same economic and social effects.

At the same time, what can do the new emerging countries like Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa or China, plus some others, which gather more than half the population of the globe? They have generally to improvise solutions without many short-term alternatives. And they use every available energy resource without necessarily having the means to mitigate their harmful effects. Meanwhile, in our western cocoons, we are scandalised by the multiplication of nuclear and coal power plants in the rest of the world.

Is not it the right time to find new grounds for international cooperation, favouring real technology transfers?

New Channels and Technologies

We have in the energy sector so many channels with a great potential! But the most immediate measures to be taken should be to promote the savings. Of course, the possibilities are bigger in the richest countries where new regulations to impose standards, for instance for equipments, are multiplying. These new norms concern also buildings (an considerable source of energy consumption). And mobility. Some cities are innovative, as it has been proved by experiences presented during some Forums organized by FEDRE: for instance, there are projects for the utilisation of CO2 to heat buildings, and in China the City of Dongtan and other towns are planned to be completely carbon free. It is also possible to do the same in emerging countries, but probably to a lesser extent.

Coal, gas and oil are supposed to have no future, as if no research in these fields would be successful one day for a better control of their emissions at a reasonable price! Stocks of coal are enormous, and to imagine that we can suddenly turn away from them is an illusion: just see Germany planning to use coal as a substitute to nuclear power! In the same dogmatic tune, shale gas is becoming the new scarecrow – and it even happens that we make sometimes the confusion with geothermal energy! These rigid attitudes neglect the human creative capacity and hinder the evolution of the society.

The last part of my speech will be on a taboo: nuclear energy. I am very at ease to speak about that, since in my country I was active in many campaigns against the development of bad channels in nuclear energy. But, even during these campaigns, I never imagined the research to be banned in a technology without greenhouse effects or chemical pollutions like NOx and SOx among others.

To overcome altogether the problem of the waste, the inner risks of power plants and the military use of nuclear energy is not scientifically utopia. What are the reasons for the arguments against research in this field? Dogmatism, economic interests of other sources of energy which want to maintain their position? Absence of knowledge, threat? “Atom for peace” exists nevertheless and can be developed for instance in medicine to save lives. Do we forget that?

In 1984, Carlo Rubbia, General Director of the CERN in Geneva (European Centre for Nuclear Research), received the Noble Prize. His scientific works show that there are possibilities in nuclear fission to use the Thorium. Earth’s crust has enough Thorium to cover humanity needs for dozens of centuries, which is long enough to allow meanwhile even more advanced technologies to emerge.

The advantages of Thorium were already known, but this channel was not developed because it does not offer possibilities for military applications. I would like to stress that the use of Thorium gives considerable guarantees in term of security and non proliferation, combined with a drastic reduction of the waste and considerable amounts of stocks in the earth.

Security is high because we can stop immediately the reactor in case of any incident. There is no danger of explosion like in Fukushima. It is also much more secure than the liquid sodium which is imagined in the next generation of nuclear reactors.

Risks of military applications are extremely reduced because there is no production of plutonium.

Long-life waste is produced in a much smaller quantity compared with systems using uranium.

It is possible to incinerate with an accelerator ADS using Thorium the waste produced by the classical uranium nuclear plants. This would suppress the major problem of the desperate quest for new sites to bury nuclear waste. The possibility offered by the Thorium to destroy existing nuclear waste is today the most obvious reason why we should develop this technology.

Thorium stocks are plentiful. We can find them namely in India, the USA, Australia and Norway. With this technology, we would produce electric energy independently from meteorological fluctuations, and without producing greenhouse effect emissions.

With several physicians from the CERN in Geneva and some other personalities, we have created last month “iThEC” (International Thorium Energy Committee) with a double objective:

- to promote active research in incineration (transmutation) of civil and military nuclear waste by using an accelerator of the type ADS;

- to continue research for the future production of a clean, secure and non proliferating energy, thanks to the Thorium.

“iThEC” is preparing in 2013 in Geneva an international Conference on the utilisation of Thorium.

This energy channel still needs several years to be operational, but has the power to change completely the energy landscape without replacing the existing renewable sources of energy with which synergies will develop.

* * *

We have to change completely the world of energy, I said. For this, we need « Courage of innovation! ». The research centres are full of serious projects to be further developed. But the resources allocated are not what could be expected from the official declarations in international conferences. Since Rio, what was not said and promised? In this context, we can see that some cities and regions have made pragmatic steps forward, particularly in energy efficiency, and that some countries have been more committed while others have even regressed.

All countries do not have the same difficulties and resources, and western people are not well placed to judge the emerging powers. Let us imagine new types of interregional partnerships with public and private actors which would be beneficial for all partners. Things could move faster in the right direction. Courage of innovation is a indispensable.