Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Nuclear Energy Debate in Germany and the US

Three Mile Island (Copyright National Geographic)
IISS-US Intern Marie Steinrucke has put together an interesting guest post on recent developments on nuclear energy in Germany and the United States.  I think she brings up some very important points in the debate.  

In Europe and the United States recent developments have once again sparked the nuclear energy debate. The results may be counter-intuitive to many people who have followed the discourse in recent years. The German public has been highly critical of the country’s nuclear program ever since its inception in the 1970s, but those who hoped Germany’s nuclear age was coming to an end recently experienced a disappointment when Chancellor Merkel passed legislation in the German Bundestag to extend nuclear plant lifespans by up to 14 years. Ironically, both proponents and opponents of the lifespan extension argue that their stance is necessary to build up renewable energy capacities in years to come. The right-wing coalition supporting the extension says that nuclear power is needed to support Germany’s transition to renewable energy sources, while the left-wing fears that keeping the reactors on the grid longer will halt innovation in the field of renewable energy.

Germans Protest Nuclear Power (Copyright AP)

In the United States, popular support for nuclear power has increased in recent years and commentators have predicted a ‘nuclear renaissance.’ Yet the failure of one company’s proposal to build a new plant on Chesapeake Bay indicates the difficulties currently faced by the industry. The Economist reports: “On October 8th Constellation Energy, a power company, gave up trying to persuade the government to reduce its proposed fee for a loan guarantee for a planned nuclear plant on Chesapeake Bay.” In an October 10th article by the New York Times the author blames the economic recession for the slump in nuclear energy projects. There has been a significant fall in the demand for electricity (4 per cent between 2007 and 2009), while the price of natural gas has plummeted, making nuclear energy less competitive. Furthermore, Congress has been unwilling to pass climate change legislation to reduce CO2 emissions, limiting incentives for switching to different energy forms. These factors contribute to the circumstance that nuclear energy is no longer financially attractive to many utility providers in America.

The pros and cons on either side of the nuclear energy debate are so complex that most voters choose to either rely on their representative or their gut feeling to shape their views on the issue. For some Americans nuclear energy does not even show up on their political radar anymore. The implications for climate security are predominantly positive in that the production of nuclear energy causes very little carbon emission compared to the production of traditional energy sources. However, the main argument against nuclear power, the problem of nuclear waste disposal, is also compelling. Scientists have made strides towards safer solutions to nuclear waste management such as deep geological disposal and space disposal. It is difficult to know whether nuclear power will find a permanent place in energy production or whether renewable energy technologies will eventaully render the nuclear solution passé. In any case, when weighing the pros and cons in today’s problems of energy and climate, nuclear power still seems persuasive as source of large scale, base load power in terms of climate security.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Water Wars - or Water Riots?

Today is 'Blog Action Day 2010', and this year, bloggers around the world are writing about water.  To join in, I've put together a post on how water insecurity had led to conflict around the world.  I've also added their 'widget' to the bottom of the page for this weekend only - why not sign the petition?

Oropoi, Kenya - Photo courtesy IRIN
In the security sector, water security is sexy as an issue because of the perceived threats of interstate conflict over shared water supplies, like rivers or lakes. Journalists love writing stories about 'water wars'.  We've written about this on this blog before, like when we discussed the Strategic Importance of Water between India and China or whether India and Pakistan can share the Indus.  Unfortunately for the hype of the journalists, projects like Aaron Wolf's Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database at the University of Oregon or Peter Gleick's Pacific Institute have shown that shared water supplies have been much more likely to help promote interstate cooperation than to provoke conflict.  In fact, in our work on climate change and security at the IISS we have found widespread agreement among experts that the more pressing threat when we discuss water and conflict is its potential to create or exacerbate local civil and ethnic conflicts.  

When looking at the causes of any conflict analytically, it is difficult to separate the effects of water shortages from other factors, like food shortages, migration, ethnicity, climate change or other issues that could drive violence. However, the impact of water over energy, development, agriculture, and livelihood makes it one of the most important factors. When water insecurity is mixed with urbanization, migration, pollution, radicalization, and a proliferation of small arms, it is not difficult to see a scenario resulting in conflict.

Water shortages or imbalances of water distribution can be driver of civil conflict in a marginalized society. In terms of terminology, ʹwater riotʹ is more appropriate that ʹwater warʹ. Examples of smalllevel riots - some leading to deaths - can be shown in Nigeria, South Africa, YemenEgypt, India, and Ecuador. These water riots can be expected to show similar characteristics to the foodrelated riots that erupted around the world in 2008. Areas of particular risk are those with strong ethnic or tribal divisions, and the effects of water riots may be to drive disaffected and marginalized parts of society away from areas of water stress.

While no one factor (like water, ethnicity, or unemployment) was able to correctly predict when these regions fell into conflict, changes in water security often can be enough to tip a region over the edge.