Essential role of nuclear in the urgently needed transformation of the world's energy system
26 October 2020
The New Nuclear Watch Institute
It is disappointing that respected organisations like Sussex University Business School and the International School of Management fall into the trap of attacking nuclear energy to promote renewables.
Anyone concerned about climate change should recognise that no single form of energy can avert the threat on its own. We need both renewable and nuclear energy, as well as much more energy efficiency, in the next decade to prevent climate change from becoming irreversible.
Supporters of investment in nuclear do not demand for it to be prioritised over renewables. Instead they back common sense solutions such as extending the life of existing nuclear plants. Where this can be done safely it is the quickest and cheapest way to decarbonise electricity generation.
Furthermore, nuclear does not crowd out growth in renewables. It provides essential baseload capacity for when wind and solar cannot produce electricity. The latest study from the New Nuclear Watch Institute shows how system costs rise rapidly as countries rely more heavily on intermittent energy sources.
As for the claim that nuclear can only produce a small drop in carbon emissions in rich countries this ignores the evidence. In the past only two countries, France and Sweden, have ever cut emissions as fast as every country must now do in future to keep the rise in average global surface temperatures below 2C.
In the wake of the 1970s oil crisis both did so by massive expansion of nuclear energy. So, let's put an end to the sniping. In the nuclear industry we unreservedly welcome the fall in price and rapid expansion of renewable energy. We look forward to further growth in renewables.
We simply ask for objective analysis of the essential role of nuclear in the urgently needed transformation of the world's energy system.
The study’s main message that countries wanting to decarbonise their power systems substantially, rapidly and in a cost-effective way should invest in renewable energy sources rather than nuclear energy is flawed. In FORATOM’s view, a combination of both nuclear energy and renewables offers the best solution to reducing CO2 emissions. As highlighted in the 2018 FTI-CL Energy study commissioned by FORATOM and entitled “Pathways to 2050: role of nuclear in a low-carbon Europe”, investing in an electricity mix which combines these two low-carbon will make it easier to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. What is also important, further to contributing to reducing CO2 emissions of the power sector, nuclear generation mitigates the environmental footprint of the European power system, which is important to ensure the wider environmental and social sustainability of the transition.
A combination of nuclear and renewables is also seen by the European Commission as Europe’s go-to option. In its long-term vision “Clean Planet for All”, the EC notes that nuclear energy will form the backbone of a carbon-free European power system, together with renewables. In addition, the role which nuclear energy has to play in decarbonising power systems has been explicitly emphasised on many occasions by expert organisations, such as in the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, the IPCC report “Global Warming of 1.5°C” or the MIT report "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World”.
As far as this study is concerned, and as rightly pointed out by experts from the MIT, it does not demonstrate an actual comparison between the impact of nuclear energy and renewables on reducing CO2 emissions. In fact, it does not even focus on CO2 emission reductions: it only compares the CO2 emissions of different countries. Also, when it speaks of renewables it actually on really focuses on hydropower – a technology which has very limited growth potential in the EU. Finally, the study does not even explain why renewables could not work together with nuclear in order to achieve the goal of decarbonisation. All these elements combined prove that in order to decarbonise power systems in the EU, Member States must not focus on just one technology, but rather embrace all low-carbon technologies available today. This is the only way in which they will achieve their climate objectives.
We need both...
Nuclear and renewables to protect the climate
The balance of peer-reviewed literature, international energy organizations, and national energy policies are unequivocal: nuclear is a carbon-free energy source with an important role to play in decarbonizing the global economy.
Oddly, a new paper in Nature Energy by Sovacool et. al. implies that nuclear energy is not a serious player in decarbonization and in fact that nuclear is counterproductive for climate because it “crowds out” renewables.
However, this study has three major flaws.
1, Contrary to the media characterization of the study as finding nuclear power does not reduce emissions, the authors did not find any statistically significant relationship between nuclear energy and per capita CO2 emissions from multiple economic sectors.
2, The study’s methodology has key limitations, as acknowledged by the authors themselves.
3, The study fails to offer any explanation as to why a nation could not pursue both a renewable and nuclear strategy simultaneously.
Although the study fails to support the conclusion that nuclear power does not contribute to climate mitigation, data from the study indicate an important fact: nuclear power has primarily been a choice for industrialized nations. The choice is not between renewable and nuclear power, it is between severe climate change and decarbonized energy systems. Building as much zero-carbon power as possible – whether it is solar, wind, nuclear power, or something else - is necessary for global decarbonization.
Without nuclear power,
the world's climate challenge will get a whole lot harder
Opinion by Fatih Birol (IEA) and Rafael Mariano Grossi (IAEA).
If the world is to meet energy security and climate goals, clean energy must be at the core of post-Covid-19 economic recovery efforts. Strong growth in wind and solar energy and in the use of electric cars gives us grounds for hope, as does the promise of emerging technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture. But the scale of the challenge means we cannot afford to exclude any available technologies, including nuclear power — the world's second-largest source of low-carbon electricity after hydropower.
Nuclear power generated a near-record amount of electricity in 2019, second only to 2006. But the nuclear power industry risks going into significant decline in the absence of further investment in new nuclear power plants and extending the lifetimes of existing ones.
Today, nuclear power plants generate 10% of the world's electricity. But they produce almost a third of all low-carbon electricity. The steady flow of power they produce is vital for ensuring reliable energy supplies in many countries. That became clear during the recent lockdowns, when nuclear and renewables were the most resilient sources of power generation globally. No nuclear power plants had to shut down because of Covid-19.
Nuclear power has a clear role to play in reducing global emissions. Challenges concerning safety and waste management adversely affect public acceptance in some countries. But the world already has well-functioning institutions and technologies to address these concerns. Given the scale and urgency of the climate challenge, we do not have the luxury of excluding nuclear from the tools at our disposal.
The important role of nuclear in a low-carbon world: the view of the European Nuclear Society’s High Scientific Council
Electricity generation is currently dominated by fossil fuels with coal and gas responsible for 63% of total production. These fossil fuels contribute about 40% to the world’s CO2 emissions. Low-carbon alternatives for electricity generation exist now in the form of nuclear power, hydroelectricity and other intermittent power generation that uses renewable solar and wind energies.
Nuclear power has the capability to load follow and thus complement the intermittent nature of wind and solar powered electricity generation. It should be recognised that nuclear power plays a significant role in ensuring role in contributing security of energy supply
All credible and affordable scenarios for decarbonisation require a considerable increase in the global deployment of nuclear power. This will require not only considerable reduction in the cost of new nuclear power projects but also public acceptance. For society to accept the widespread use of nuclear power, we believe that more needs to be done to raise public awareness of the potential risks and benefits of the technology.
We believe that technology alone will not solve the problem of climate change. The decarbonisation that is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change will require both political and societal change. All countries will need to recognize that the long-term preservation of our planet and hence mankind, will require urgent decisions and changes to our way of life. We believe that the increased deployment of nuclear power is the best way to minimize the impact on society. Achieving this will not be easy but it is a noble goal for all of us, especially politicians and international organizations.
Nuclear Industry Association
Sovacool and Stirling are attempting to rehash a ‘study’ they were co-authors of four years ago that was so riddled with basic errors, oversights and false conclusions that it had to be withdrawn. Their omission of the fact that nuclear power saves carbon in their latest effort is as unsurprising as it is habitual.
The fact is that nuclear power has saved far more carbon emissions than any other generating source in the UK – over 1 billion tonnes. Nuclear power, with wind power, has the lowest lifecycle carbon footprint. When nuclear stations go offline, here and elsewhere in Europe, we burn more fossil fuels and emissions go up. That is why we need to commit to all zero carbon sources to have a fighting chance of meeting Net Zero by 2050 – nuclear and renewables. Serious climate academics, activists and campaigners are rightly focussing on how to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels rather than indulging in constructing conclusions to match pre-ordained views.
Senior Communication Manager
World Nuclear Association
The study is flawed in several ways. While claiming the study applies to all renewables, most of the renewable generation over the periods analysed comes from hydropower, so the study has little relevance to any consideration of wind, solar or other non-hydro renewable. The practical experience of countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, France and the province of Ontario is that combining hydro and nuclear is a proven way of achieving deep decarbonization of electricity generation.
Around 120 countries are counted as renewable countries. This group includes a much higher proportion of countries with emerging economies, with average GDPs per capita around 55% of the 30 nuclear countries. The authors compared the share of electricity generation from nuclear and renewables with emissions from all fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture, not just electricity generation. It seems likely that the higher emissions are more directly related to higher levels of industrialization and transport, rather than the share of renewable or nuclear generation, which in most cases accounts for less than half of total electricity generation, which itself accounts for less than half the of the emissions included in the study.