French energy company EDF is using its controversial sponsorship of the international climate talks in Paris to launch a large-scale public relations campaign to brand nuclear power as a ‘carbon-free’ and ‘clean’ energy source. In fact, nuclear is everything but clean, and escalating costs and subsidies are better spent on genuine solutions.
French energy company EDF is stepping up its greenwashing efforts with newfound zeal ahead of this year’s international climate talks in Paris. As an official sponsor of COP21, EDF presents itself as ‘the official partner of a low-carbon world’. In the run-up to the conference, the company is planning a series of conferences and symposia to promote the ‘role of electricity in decarbonising the world’. It is also funding a “call for projects” for non-profit organisations with green projects with a positive impact for the climate. EDF has also hired an important communication agency, Havas, to launch a new advertising offensive: “Discover the true face of low-carbon energy”, staging workers from one of its nuclear power plant, published in plain page of national newspapers.
But beyond the spin, EDF is not in fact planning to shed any of its considerable global investments in coal and other fossil fuels, nor is it preparing any significant strategic shift towards energy efficiency or renewables. Its main concern is propping up its increasingly compromised nuclear business.
Strong on nuclear and fossil energy, weak on renewables
EDF, still 84% owned by the French state, has expanded its operations in Europe, particularly in the UK, and worldwide since the 1990s. On its website, it claims that 87% of the electricity it produces in the world is‘CO2-free’. In France, according to EDF, this figure even rises to 98%. But that is not because the company ever was a pioneer of green energy. Renewable energy sources are still very marginal in its global electricity mix, at about 2%. In France, it is only 0.2% (excluding large dams. The main basis for EDF’s claim is its huge stake in nuclear power, of which it is the top global producer, with plants not only in France, but also in the UK, the US, Belgium and China.
And, very far from the ‘CO2-free’ image it is trying to conjure up ahead of the climate conference, EDF is also heavily involved in all types of fossil fuels, including through subsidiaries such as Edison (involved in oil and gas exploration and production) or EDF Trading (a leading global shipper of oil and coal). EDF itself runs a fleet of 16 coal power plants globally, including some of the dirtiest in Europe. In 2013, it was rated among the top 20 global multinational emitters of greenhouse gases.
Nuclear: neither nor carbon-free
In reality, nuclear power itself is far from carbon-free. It has a dark, dirty secret: uranium mining. Like mining in general, uranium mining requires enormous amounts of energy and thus contributes to significant greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to huge local environmental and health impacts for surrounding communities.
Most emissions from nuclear power are therefore outsourced to the countries where uranium is mined – mostly Niger, Kazakhstan and Canada in the case of EDF’s supplier Areva. Transport and processing of both uranium fuel and of the resulting nuclear waste also create significant greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the carbon footprint of nuclear in some cases can even be higher than some fossil fuels, and well above wind and solar .
Nuclear energy also entails a whole host of other environmental impacts and hazards: radiation, waste management and disposal, nuclear proliferation, escalating production costs, and the huge consequences associated with potential nuclear accidents.
After a complaint made by the French antinuclear network “Sortir du nucléaire” and some local groups, these arguments were recognised by an official advertisement ethics body: it recently issued a damning opinion on a public advertising campaign launched by EDF in Alsace, the French region where the company is fighting against the planned closure of its 37 years old Fessenheim nuclear plant, the oldest running in France. The adverts said that the electricity provided by EDF in Alsace was ‘100% without CO2 emissions’ – which the ethics body found was deliberately misleading consumers about the true nature of nuclear energy and its environmental impacts.
Sortir du nucléaire and its partners have now lodged a second complaint, taking aim at EDF’s claim that it is providing 98% carbon-free electricity in France.
The escalating cost of nuclear power, a direct threat for renewables
The escalating costs of nuclear are well known to EDF. The company has no new nuclear projects planned, even in France, except for the Hinkley C plant in the UK, the future of which is questioned due to high costs. The project has been challenged by other European countries and renewable energy producers, who point out the massive public subsidies required in order to bring the new nuclear reactor into existence, which could otherwise be spent on the shift towards a genuinely clean energy system of renewables.
So what does EDF really want? In France, its current agenda is to extend the lifetime of its existing plants – most of them approaching 40 years old and plagued with recurring safety issues. This could cost up to a hundred billion euro. That money should be invested in building the long-term sustainable energy system that France needs, which would be both cheaper and better for the climate, people and the environment – both in France and in the countries where uranium is mined.
Between its huge stakes in fossil fuels and its investment in false solutions such as nuclear, EDF can hardly claim to be an official partner of a “low-carbon world”. If it had its way, France and the world would remain stuck in a future of climate chaos, nuclear risk and escalating energy costs.