Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
 

How nuclear can help the planet achieve net-zero

EPA-EFE/TAMAS SOKI/FILE PICTURE
An open reactor tank of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant's training reactor in Paks.

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Nuclear power offers the world an abundant future if it is embraced, said speakers at an event jointly organised by the New Nuclear Watch Institute (NNWI) and World Nuclear Association (WNA) during COP26 in Glasgow. Nuclear technology has now developed to the point where it could save the planet from catastrophic climate change and, if introduced safely and more widely, could help countries avoid the path of economic scarcity.

Delegates attending the COP26 from all over the world came to the event to hear about how a proven technology – nuclear – should have its rightful place alongside renewable forms of energy as the world aims for net-zero carbon emissions.

Speakers were looking to the future, imagining a world free of fossil fuels. While as a chairman of the NNWI, I described the magnitude of the task ahead of us, I believe that nuclear can and must lead the world’s transition to net-zero. It is a technology that has been neglected for too long but is uniquely suited to the task ahead.

Director General of World Nuclear Association, Sama Bilbao y León, delivered an eloquent plea for the world to think in terms of abundance, not scarcity – and for all nations to move towards a net-zero future together. While noting the significance of meeting in Glasgow, the city where the steam engine was invented, she emphasised the importance of looking to the future, not the past.

Tom Samson, the CEO of Rolls-Royce SMR, encouraged advocates of nuclear energy to tell others “that nuclear is the solution to climate change,” before going on to give a brief explanation of the revolutionary work being fulfilled by Rolls-Royce through their production of SMRs.

Warming to the theme of showing more courage in making the case for nuclear energy, Nuclear Industry Association CEO Tom Greatrex revealed that 75% of the power for the COP summit itself came from nuclear and renewable wind energy.

Diane Cameron of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency remained concerned that nuclear energy does not get referenced enough in debates around clean energy, even by countries that actively use it. But she did recognise that nuclear energy has been included in COP in a way that has never been before.

Her enthusiasm was replicated by Maria Korsnick, the President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Polina Lion, Chief Sustainability Officer of Rosatom, took the time to remind us of the benefits of nuclear energy and why we should be excited, not daunted, by the challenge ahead of us. Nuclear energy, she pointed out, is not only a source of electricity, but an agent of change. Jessica Johnson of FORATOM told the guests that “We are in this industry because we are passionate about this industry”.

John Gorman, the President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association explained the need to stay grounded, to use the climate crisis as an opportunity for a just transition, and to exercise leadership at this time.

The message loud and clear from COP26 is that the world is finally moving towards cleaner energy. Even louder and clearer is the message is that it is moving far too slowly. Without a drastic acceleration of this progress there is no chance whatever of keeping the rise in average surface temperature below 2C. Every country must come to COP27 in Egypt next autumn with a revised Nationally Determined Contribution which is compatible with 2C.

This is no small challenge. Historically only two countries have ever cut their fossil fuel consumption as fast as every country must now do if dangerous irreversible climate change is to be prevented. France and Sweden showed the way back in the 1970s in the wake of the first oil shock. Both did so by investing heavily in a rapid increase in nuclear energy capacity.

Of course half a century ago, nobody foresaw the possibility of plentiful renewable energy. Nor did they anticipate a time when using the abundant reserves of coal, oil and gas would threaten the conditions of climate stability on which the enormous economic advances and population growth of the last two hundred years have been based.

The other key message from COP26 is that keeping the temperature rise below 2C is a task which can’t be left to the 2030s and 2040s. To achieve this goal we must start now and make substantial progress in this decade.

No technical problem prevents this from happening. The technology to decarbonise almost entirely two of the highest emitting industries – electricity generation and surface transport – already exists. All that’s needed to begin tomorrow is the political will to do so.

Decarbonising surface transport depends heavily on electricity so the most urgent task is to end the use of coal and gas for electricity production. This requires massive expansion of renewable energy capacity, mainly solar and wind power because most of the best potential hydro-electric resources are already being exploited.

But it is already clear that relying too heavily on intermittent sources of energy compromises the ability of any nation to maintain that continuous supply of electricity on which modern business and social life depends.

This is why the renaissance of nuclear energy is so critical. It provides the reliable baseload power needed to complement renewables. Furthermore the development of advanced and small modular reactors will enable nuclear to reach new locations unsuitable for large plants. Floating nuclear plants will add more flexibility.

Looking ahead to 2022 NNWI believes that the prospects for nuclear are now better than at any time in this century. The tired old debate about whether to invest in renewables or nuclear has largely been replaced by a common-sense recognition that both are needed and the faster capacity can be ramped up the better.

COP26’s first formal acknowledgement that coal must be phased out was welcome. The progress made in facilitating greater linkage and compatibility of carbon trading systems and the wider use of carbon pricing is also extremely positive for nuclear. Beyond COP26 we need universal acceptance of the key contribution which nuclear can make to overcoming climate change, a halt to all fossil fuel exploration, faster closure of all coal fired power stations and early phaseout of all unabated gas plants.

Nothing less than this will ensure humanity’s survival.

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