Medvedev’s mention of nuclear in climate speech throws tacks onto otherwise smooth road

Publish date: December 15, 2009

COPENHAGEN – A speech given by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as a dry run for what he will have to say at the climate talks here on Thursday, which was posted on the Kremlin website, received high marks from environmentalists for its tone of energy efficiency targets, emissions commitments and all over realisation of the problems at hand.

Then he hit the breaks.

“The portion of energy coming from nuclear power will rise to 25 percent,” he wrote, sliding it in slyly in behind a sentence about a “stage by stage broadening of the use of renewable energy,” in Russia.

For many environmentalists, the milk ran sour. The speech provided the most tangible document yet that Russia was nearly on the same page as the EU in term of greenhouse gas cuts, and improved energy efficiency – and then abruptly splattered on the tarmac by implying more reliance on its aged, derelict nuclear industry.

Bellona, Russia’s Ecodefence group, and many other environmental organisations deplore the use of nuclear power as a strategy against climate change. New plants take years to build and would come online only after irreversible damage had been done, and old plants continue to produce highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel for which no country has found adequate and safe storage.

The nuclear power option would therefore, say environmentalists, create a future of not only climactic degradation but an overflow of spent nuclear fuel. At present, Russia spent fuel facilities alone are 97 percent full, and will be running over in the next five to seven years.

Nevertheless, it’s well known that many countries are planning to ramp up their nuclear industries to help stem the growth of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. But until its apparent inclusion in Medvedev’s prospective remarks, the plan has remained the crazy aunt in the attic that all have accepted will have a place in each capable nation’s post-Copenhagen domestic energy policy, but whose ugly legacy doesn’t necessarily need to be rolled up to the dinner table.

Indeed, the nuclear lobby, though it has marked off its territory at the Bella Center negotiations facility, has stayed well behind the exhibits of solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars and streetlights powered by bicycles.

Kremlin officials were at pains Monday to explain the inclusion of Medvedev’s 25 percent target for domestic reliance on nuclear energy, telling Ecodefence and Bellona that the figure had been included by mistake, that the text at was just a draft, or that they didn’t know what anyone was talking about.

In other words, they realised that allowing the head representative of the father of Chernobyl to bring up nuclear power at summit devoted to harnessing renewable energy and cooler world temperatures was somehow in very bad taste.

But taste being the personal matter that it is, the so-called presidential blog remained unchanged as of 2am Thursday morning – some 14 hours after environmentalist and reporters made their initial calls.

Later in the day, members of the Russian delegation held a stiff, sparsely attended press conference, and much of what was good to have read in Medvedev’s blog was rehashed by two functionaries, presidential advisor on climate issues, Alexander Bedritsky, and the energy ministry’s deputy director of department, Oleg Plokhinov.

It was also reassuring to hear nothing radically new – presented though it was in the usual disappointing lack of detail about how Russia’s laudable goals will be achieved.

But the Russian negotiating team, at least, doesn’t seem to have any aces up it sleeve for a disruptive last minute gambit – unless Medvedev brings with him a degenerative agenda focused on Russia’s rust-bucket nuclear industry. If this is the plan, there was no mention of nuclear power made by either member of Russia’s negotiation team.

That Medvedev would come to Copenhagen and stump for Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom seems, at the moment, unlikely, as his most recent comment before the talks have concerned bringing China, the United States, India and Brazil into coordinated commitments.

“These must be simultaneous commitments and commitments that we all abide by. Trying to do this by our own will be fruitless and pointless,” he told reporters Monday, according to Bloomberg.

China, the United States and India, are, in order, the world’s biggest emitters, where Brazil’s clear cutting of Amazon forests is hindering the planet’s own ability to regulate carbon dioxide. Medvedev’s remarks evidenced a genuinely constructive diplomacy and engagement. Hopefully, he will maintain that timbre and not slide into over-promotion of his country’s limping nuclear workshop.

Back at the Bella Center, Bedritsky said Russia’s emissions cuts offering still stood, as it did last week, at 25 percent below 1990 levels. As Russia is currently 34 percent below those levels, there is wiggle room for some industrial grow, but Bedristky promises that large-scale modernisation of Russia energy system would assure emissions would not sink below 25 percent.

Bedritsky also reiterated that Russia wanted to see a new agreement emerge that had nothing to do with extending the Kyoto Protocol, but that Russia intended to sit on the €30 billion to €45 billion carbon credits it earned – the monetary equivalent of 300 trillion tons of greenhouse gasses.

Most here at the negotiations have written off Russia’s stellar achievements in this arena as the spoils of its post-Soviet collapse that left it nothing to pollute with. Environmentalists have also shown that Russia’s emissions have spike by 15 percent since 1998.

But Bedritsky oddly insisted that the carbon credits where not only earned under Kyoto, but that Russia had been working long before it ratified Kyoto in 2004 to bring down its own emissions. He gave no proof of this and stated as a self-evident fact requiring no further elaboration.

Bedritsky also recited the figure that Russia would increase its energy efficiency by 40 percent, also something that has been on the table since negotiations began. Here there was a little more detail to be had. Much of this gain would be achieved, he said, by new building codes requiring that all buildings, public, government and private alike, be fitted with more energy efficient lighting.

But Bedritsky’s counterpart on the dais, Plokhinov, did at least acknowledge the dream factor of the plan, and how it will take money Russia doesn’t have.

“It is an ambitious goal and we can’t rely on structural reforms, but rather technological reforms,” he said. To make this possible, said Plokhinov, foreign money and legislation was necessary, and that this legislation would most likely be signed by Medvedev immediately.

“We must remove legal barriers to investment in industry,” he said.

Another money-spinner, said Plokhinov, will be to regulate energy costs. At present, these cost are all over the low scale of the map in Russia. Establishing set rates for transmission and consumption, he said, would stabilise the market.

Other enticements that would be on the table domestically would include 10 billion roubles to companies who are fitting the new scheme of modernisation. The government will also offer tax deductions to companies operating on energy efficient principles and producing equipment to make that possible.

Plokhinov also spoke of introducing the notion of energy efficiency test cities – something akin to Norway’s “Smart City” project in Trondheim. Russia’s smart city will be Tyumen, in the Southern Urals region.

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