Arguing whether or not climate change is “a thing” seems like it’s (thankfully) in our past. Climate change is part of our lexicon and our everyday habits are positively changing to reflect a new sense of individual responsibility and collective action toward protecting our planet.
The pressure on governments and industry is also at an all-time high. More and more of our leaders are scrambling to make ambitious targets to help keep global temperatures well below a 2-degree-C increase, as agreed at the Paris climate summit (COP21) in 2015. As COP26 begins, the world will be watching to see whether negotiators and leaders can separate fact from fiction and truly follow the science.
Global energy needs are rapidly increasing. Electricity demand alone is projected to double in the next three decades. However, a key question remains. How can we effectively offer abundant clean energy globally?
A recent Nuclear for Climate position paper, authored by volunteers from the UK Nuclear Institute’s Young Generation Network (YGN), brings together some of the hard science on climate change mitigation and the role of nuclear power. The five key themes are explored below.
Nuclear Is a Proven and Effective Low-Carbon Energy Source. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises the incredibly low lifetime emissions of nuclear power and shows it to be similar to that of wind and hydropower. In fact, Swedish nuclear energy last year was verified to have emissions of 2.5 grams CO2/kWh, making it one of the cleanest energy sources in the world.
France, which produces approximately three quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy, has the lowest per capita emissions of the seven largest industrialised countries (G7). Many countries that have shut down their nuclear power plants have struggled to reduce their reliance on polluting fossil fuels.
Nuclear Is Available, Scalable, and Deployable. The consensus across major international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), International Energy Agency (IEA), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD-NEA), and European Union, is that all low-carbon technologies, including nuclear energy, will need to be deployed urgently and at scale in order to achieve net-zero targets. As reflected in both the IPCC’s special 1.5C report and the IEA’s net-zero roadmap, primary energy supply from nuclear power needs to double by 2050 in order to meet our climate commitments.
Nuclear Is a Flexible and Affordable Source of Clean Energy. Nuclear energy also brings huge system value. Its dispatchability and reliability means that it adds grid stability and predictability—a feature taken for granted in developed electricity grids. As such, it circumvents the fatal trifecta as coined by Meredith Angwin, “Over reliance on renewables, just-in-time natural gas, and imported electricity.”
But nuclear power is expensive, right? Not really. The IEA and OECD-NEA recently found that new nuclear power remains the dispatchable, low-carbon energy resource with the lowest expected costs in 2025. If we also look at France and Germany, France has 1/10th the emissions of Germany thanks to the large share of nuclear power, and one quarter the cost in energy bills. We can have our cake and eat it too.
Nuclear Delivers More Than Just Low-Carbon Electricity. Hard to abate sectors like aviation, steel manufacture, and even polymer and plastic production will require significant innovation before reaching carbon neutrality. However, with the hydrogen revolution on the horizon, the challenge is reduced, but we need firm, low-carbon energy, and nothing fits the bill better than nuclear energy.
The heat from nuclear power plants also means it can offer low-carbon heating. Believe it or not, district heating from nuclear energy is already being delivered in Switzerland and China. Furthermore, nuclear-produced hydrogen can be used in clean energy systems to add further flexibility, meaning it can help work harmoniously with intermittent renewables.
Nuclear Supports Inclusive and Sustainable Global Development. Nuclear energy is strongly aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and can be used to address energy poverty by delivering clean energy globally, supporting high living standards, good health, a clean environment, and a sustainable economy. According to the IEA, new nuclear capacity of 15 GW is required on average every year between 2020 and 2040 in order to meet its projected SDG-aligned Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). In 2020, only 5 GW came online. We are behind!
This technology-neutral, scientific approach is the request to leaders from the next generation of climate activists. Follow the science—net-zero needs nuclear.
Net Zero Needs Nuclear is an international campaign being driven by the YGN, a voluntary community of early career individuals seeking to promote the benefits of nuclear to a wider, more diverse audience. The YGN is championing collaboration with organisations outside the nuclear sector, as well as hosting webinars, speaking competitions at schools, producing inspiring content, and having a presence at COP26. In addition to meeting with senior policymakers and politicians, the team has a petition with almost 5,000 signatories and a scientifically underpinned position paper supported by more than 100 organisations representing 80,000 members on which this article is based.
—Arun Khuttan volunteers his time to being the COP26 lead for the Nuclear Institute Young Generation Network (YGN) and Sophie Zienkiewicz is an active volunteer for the YGN.