By Sue Landau
Ever since negotiators clinched a global climate agreement in Paris late last year, the nuclear power industry has been vaunting its virtues as a low-carbon electricity source and alternative to fossil fuels threatening our planet.
Now, energy experts and even some environmentalists are saying nuclear power is essential if the world is to avert irreversible climate change.
The new advocates of nuclear are actually sounding the alarm.
Nuclear energy is losing ground to subsidized renewable energy sources and cheap natural gas, particularly in the United States, the world’s second largest carbon emitter. And with ever rising energy demand, humanity is burning more fossil fuels than ever.
None of this squares with the climate accord’s aim to slash carbon emissions by 2050 so that global warming can be capped well under 2°C, and preferably close to 1.5°C, by the turn of the next century.
Two prominent U.S. environmentalists recently penned a strongly worded article in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that neglecting nuclear would reverse clean energy goals.
“The insistence that solar is ready to play a major role in meeting our energy needs today is both delusional and irresponsible,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote in May.
Environmental fears have crimped nuclear energy.
Shellenberger and Cesar Penafielin gave some examples in a paper published in May by Environmental Progress.
The closure of four nuclear power plants in the United States in 2013 and 2014 wiped out almost all of the carbon gain from solar energy in 2015, they said. Worse, replacing those plants with gas-fired power stations would be the carbon equivalent of putting 3.1 million more cars on the road.
Another influential voice comes from the International Energy Agency, whose director, Fatih Birol, has said a “nuclear renaissance” is the only way to achieve climate goals. That would mean that by 2040, nuclear would have to generate 18 percent of the world’s electricity. But under today’s policies, its share would inch up to only 12 percent from 11 percent now, he told the World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris in June.
Far from a renaissance, recent trends have been to reduce or phase out nuclear energy.
Environmentalist campaigns against atomic energy have helped make it widely unpopular. Nuclear disasters like the meltdowns at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, plus the conundrum of what to do with highly radioactive waste, have made the public justly suspicious, particularly in the West.
After the Fukushima catastrophe, Germany closed its nuclear power program and ramped up sources of renewable energy. An early consequence, however, was bad smog across northern France in the winter of 2014 as Germany burned more highly polluting brown coal to substitute for lost nuclear energy.
Aging plants and new technologies
Even France, which depends on nuclear energy for three quarters of its electricity, has adopted a policy of bringing that share down to half.
In China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, heavy smog in cities tends to outweigh safety concerns over nuclear, and the country is going full steam ahead in installing nuclear capacity.
There is another reason for the hiatus in nuclear power: most existing plants will come to the end of their lives over the next few decades.
The next generation of reactors, known as Generation III, offer more efficient fuel use, better safety and a longer lifetime. But they use essentially the same technology that has been employed in civil nuclear energy since it began in the 1950s. Take-up has been slow, and on top of that, the construction of one model, Areva/EDF’s EPR, has hit cost overruns, delays and controversy in France, Finland and Britain.
But the industry is on the cusp of a technological revolution with Generation IV reactors, which may come to fruition as soon as the 2030s. Some of the innovations in the pipeline involve different fuels, like thorium instead of uranium, and others involve different coolants — liquid sodium, gas or lead — rather than the pressurized water currently used to cool reactor cores.
These and other advances such as making seamless components from new materials could potentially reduce the radioactivity and volume of waste, and the likelihood of accidents. But, as so often with nuclear energy, there is a difficult trade-off. Fuel used in these fast neutron reactors creates less waste, but it can be used for military purposes and so carries a risk of nuclear proliferation.
Not much time for thought
Further out, the industry hopes to develop reactors with what is called a “closed fuel cycle,” meaning they would no longer leave highly radioactive spent fuel as a by-product. But this advance has not yet been achieved.
“Closed cycle is a very long-term vision,” Daniel Verwaerde, CEO of the French Atomic Energy Commission, told a forum on innovation at the World Nuclear Exhibition.
Progress may come sooner from small modular reactors, which would reduce costs and bring greater flexibility to electricity generation. One prototype is designed to continue cooling the reactor core even if there were a total loss of power, a major safety plus.
These reactors could help cover for intermittent energies — wind and solar — and even bridge the gap until the world has managed to de-carbonize. But safety issues are not yet resolved, nuclear experts told the forum.
Whatever course of action is adopted, decisions taken now will require time to become reality because of the long-term, capital-intensive nature of nuclear energy. It takes 25 years to bring a new technology into use, and a nuclear plant operates for 50-60 years.
The deadline for reining in carbon emissions is 2050. That doesn’t leave much time for thought.
(For more reading on nuclear power and climate change, click here.)
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.