Want to Reduce CO2 Emissions? We Might Need to Embrace Nuclear Power

Tackling climate change will require an enormous energy system transformation. Can we afford to say “no” to any technology that reduces CO2 emissions? Is nuclear energy the villain that we often think it to be? As the debate around this continues, the EU’s positioning of nuclear energy in the Taxonomy Regulation–its new classification system for sustainable activities–could make all the difference.

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There is no equivalent for the Covid-19 crisis in modern history, neither in its suddenness nor in its intensity. The economic shock will be substantial, with many business bankruptcies and a leap in unemployment rates. Moreover, the consequences will be much harder for those in the lower echelons of society. During exceptional disasters, we naturally turn to the government, the insurer of last resort, regardless of the political system in place. We were all waiting for political measures to be enacted to enhance health security during the Covid-19 crisis, and we are all hoping the public recovery plans will help restore the economy and limit the impact of the crisis. This collective and long-term approach is a major lesson we need to integrate in our future decisions in order to mitigate the repercussions of the looming climate crisis.

Climate change resembles Covid-19, but it is slower, and its repercussions are graver.

Its immediate impact notwithstanding, the Covid-19 crisis has many similarities with climate change. Both concern market failures, externalities, collective responsibility, leadership, international dependencies, science, system resilience and public support.

First, we abruptly rediscovered that human activity should aim to preserve natural capital, a precious legacy which we are dramatically threatening. This pandemic has shown that our predation on nature could have irreversible consequences.

Climate change offers similar lessons, but they are accompanied by more catastrophic repercussions. It promises a fortississimo instead of, in comparison, to the current mezzo piano1In music fortississimo means very very loud and mezzo piano mezzo-piano, means moderately soft., with a multitude of already visible indications such as rising temperatures, longer and more extreme droughts around the world, more severe tropical storms, less snowpack in polar areas, faster glaciers melting, melting permafrost, rising sea levels and more. 

Take for example the unusual period of high temperature in Siberia this year, including a record-breaking 38 degrees, causing wildfires, loss of permafrost and pest invasion. Those changes occur while global warming is still roughly over 1°C.

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a 3°C global warming would cause an increase in the occurrence and the intensity of extreme weather phenomena, resulting in widespread food insecurity, which will lead to migrations and conflicts globally.

Climate change has the potential to cause the deaths of millions of people. Furthermore, it seems that worst-case scenarios may have been underestimated2https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/13/climate-worst-case-scenarios-clouds-scientists-global-heating#img-1

Secondly, this crisis has made us realise that a person’s behaviour not only affects their own survival, but also that of others. Wearing a mask aims to protect others than myself from infection and vice-versa.

This reality is less tangible when it comes to global warming, but still true: your efforts protect me, and my efforts protect you. This was historically necessary at all stages of civilisation: clans, tribes, cities, civilizations, kingdoms, and then countries. This threat ignores boundaries and borders – the survival of future generations is on the line.

Lastly, the virus reunited us around the benefits of science. While thinking about the solution (a vaccine), it was agreed that the solution will come from scientists, not from some charismatic demagogue(s). The parallel with climate change is striking, as only scientifically led solutions will enable us to combat the issue.

Fighting global warming is not new, but Covid-19 presents a unique occasion. The world has had a vital need for low-carbon energy long before Covid-19, and these uniquely challenging times underline how important it is to continue working towards achieving this goal.

Let’s face it: CO2 is the enemy.

Covid-19 recovery actions will alter public and foreign policy for decades. This crisis is therefore a unique opportunity to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and take up commitments to a more sustainable future. Ensuring global warming remains under 2°C requires immediate action, free of dogmatic considerations. Indeed, many decarbonized solutions are already available and every bet on uncertain technologies would be hazardous and irresponsible.

This is particularly salient with regard to electricity. As a matter of fact, electricity is one of the few forms of energy that can be produced without fossil fuels. Decarbonizing electricity production (which represents 35% of greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union) along with electrification (transports with electric vehicles, residential and heating, industrial processes etc.) is consequently one of the most efficient ways to address the problem.

Plenty of countries agree on the fact that we must give up coal and oil. But consensus is not enough – action is required. Furthermore, big companies are trying to position gas as a transition energy, underlining the fact that it reduces emissions significantly in some cases; a coal-to-gas switch could cut emissions to half, from more than 800gCO2/kWh to around 400gCO2/kWh. But 400 is still high, and therefore not compatible with neutrality and the 2°C goal. Investing in more gas infrastructure will create a lock-in effect and reduce progress internationally.

What about biogas?3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biogas Well, it is an interesting solution; it releases the same amount of CO2 captured by the fuel in its lifecycle (wood, organic wastes, etc.). It is therefore technically and theoretically carbon neutral. However, when we consider the input volumes we have (with respect to agricultural lands, forests, woods etc.), its potential and reductions are minor in comparison with our energy consumption.

There are therefore only two viable low-carbon sources: renewable4Mainly biomass, hydropower and variable renewables : offshore and onshore wind, photovoltaics and nuclear. 

However, they divide the European Union on the issue of electricity production. There is seemingly a general tendency (or volition) to oppose the two, making the question of low-carbon energy sources highly controversial and reactions often misjudged.

Public perception of nuclear power has been defined by its failures.

My early ventures into the nuclear field, first in outage projects, then as head of maintenance department in a nuclear plant, weren’t particularly motivated by environmental considerations. As a matter of fact, I was fascinated by the science behind it, by the beauty of the theory that underlies it and the complexity of its application. 

The annual “artificial” radioactivity I took was 100 times less than the average natural radioactivity, and 10,000 times less than the natural radioactivity received by the residents of Ramsar in Iran or Guarapari in Brazil. It’s thereby surprising that radioactivity produced by nuclear plants is such a controversial topic compared to its natural counterpart. 

This doesn’t mean that radioactivity cannot be risky, but avoiding the subject or capitulating to an irrational fear of an invisible feature will not solve the problem. 

Anti-nuclear movements were founded during the fight against nuclear weapons (which I find legitimate), creating a significant mix-up with civil nuclear energy in public consciousness. On the other hand, human error and some significant failures (Three Miles island, Chernobyl, Fukushima) have not helped to rationalise the nuclear debate. 

How could nuclear energy help in fighting climate change?

A sharp and clear answer: the fission of uranium does not emit CO2. It is inherent in the reaction. There is a little CO2 in the nuclear production chain, mainly during mining, the enrichment of uranium, plant construction and waste management. According to IPCC figures, with 12g of CO2/kWh5To be also compared with 490 g of CO2/kWh for gas and 820 g of CO2/kWh for coal (compared with roughly 400g for gas) the carbon emissions deriving from nuclear emissions are equal to those of wind power and 4 to 5 times lower than solar power.

Therefore, by currently providing more than 47% of the low-carbon electricity in the European Union, nuclear power saves around 500 million tons of CO2 every year.

Anti-nuclear parties know this, and some of them have already acknowledged it. Moreover, several prominent figures of the anti-nuclear movement have already called for a cease-fire and a reconsideration of positions now that global warming has emerged as a common enemy.6Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace, and former president of Greenpeace Canada), Brice Lalonde (former French Minister of Environment and former green party leader)…

The safety and waste arguments remain capital for anti-nuclear rhetoric.

Even though I had studied it before, seeing how a nuclear plant was designed, how it worked and how safety was managed reassured me. The difference between public perception and reality is striking. Working in a nuclear plant doesn’t consist of randomly pressing a button on a console! 

The first image that comes to some people’s mind when we mention a nuclear plant is The Simpsons, which, funny as it is, has encouraged negative perceptions of nuclear power plants. The stereotypes are everywhere in the media (stack of containers half open and dripping with greenish radioactive material, strange secret experiments, two-headed animals, etc.), and of course none of them are accurate.  

The IAEA and EU regulatory frameworks ensure that nuclear power plants comply with the highest safety standards over their full life cycle, including the management of nuclear waste. Indeed, from the perspective of human health, nuclear and renewable power plants are similarly safe, in the range of 0.005 to 0.07 deaths per TWh7https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/deaths-low-carbon-energy and https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy (yes, including Chernobyl). 

The management of nuclear waste is the most rigorous and traceable. It is managed by lifespan and level of radioactivity in order to avoid any impact on the environment. In reality, nuclear waste has never killed anyone. Conversely, the flaws in the management of fossil fuel waste and what they release into the environment (fine particles, CO2)8https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/hidden-costs-fossil-fuels have led to global warming and widespread deaths because of air pollution. In practice, most of the radioactivity (95%) is contained in high-level waste, which represents for instance 0.2% of the total volume of nuclear waste in France9https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-wastes-myths-and-realities.aspx(equivalent to the volume of one Olympic swimming pool per 50 years of operation). At the same time, the nuclear industry is working toward, and in some countries has already started, delivering facilities for safe and long-term disposal of nuclear waste. 

What about costs?

Nuclear construction projects do of course have known delays and uncontrolled cost increases, attributed to reasons such as loss of experience associated with the absence of construction projects over a significant period of time, and quality deviations. However, this do not   jeopardise the capacity of the sector to rapidly recover.

Yet taking this into account, claiming that solar and wind energy have become cheaper than nuclear is far from obvious.

An analysis of IPCC figures10https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_annex-iii.pdf show that the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE, a measure of the average net present cost of electricity generation for a generating plant over its lifetime) of nuclear energy is on average half of solar or offshore wind and comparable to onshore wind. 

Furthermore, the LCOE does not consider the value of a reliable, stable and dispatchable power supply, nor the grid integration costs (necessary to connect variable renewable sources to the electrical grid). In other terms, nuclear power does not depend on weather conditions and can provide 24-hour electricity. Our society is built on the basis of energy available on demand. Hence, variable renewable energy requires large-scale storage equipment.

Comparing variable renewable costs with those of nuclear is therefore misleading. Depending on the weather conditions, wind and solar energy are not always available nor reliable. The comparison needs to consider the value of “dispatchability”, hence integrating the costs of storage for the variable renewables.

Moreover, nuclear requires fewer physical materials than variable renewable energy. For example, 1 kWh of solar energy requires 100 times more copper or 50 times more steel than nuclear does. 1 GW of solar panels occupies around 1000 hectares (excluding associated storage), while one nuclear reactor (> 0,9 GW) needs 1 hectare, and only a few hectares with the auxiliaries. Nuclear is also the densest form of energy: 1 kg of nuclear fuel used in a light-water reactor contains over 200 thousand times more energy than 1 kg of coal, for example. 

Nuclear and renewables are not enemies.

Nuclear energy is flexible and does not slow down the rollout of renewable energy. On the contrary, this flexibility can help integrate more wind and solar energy into the grid. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)11https://energy.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/The-Future-of-Nuclear-Energy-in-a-Carbon-Constrained-World.pdf Jenkins, J., et al. 2018. “The benefits of nuclear flexibility in power system operations with renewable energy.”has shown that the flexibility of nuclear plants in a power system with renewables can reduce overall electricity costs. 

Ultimately, we must note that we are running out of time. Debates become passionate each and every time nuclear energy is mentioned. The urgency of the situation requires scientific arguments12“The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional”, Oscar Wilde wittily saidfree from political or ideological dogma.

NGOs and political parties built around an anti-nuclear stance cultivated support at a time where climate change was not an issue, leading them to defend positions based on questionable arguments in the modern era. Now is the time to review priorities and stop conflating objectives and means.

The UN’s IPCC13https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter7.pdf and IEA14https://www.iea.org/reports/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-systemhave made it clear that nuclear power is indispensable to keep global warming below 2 degrees. The European Union needs all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear energy, in order to achieve its decarbonisation objectives whilst providing reliable and affordable electricity. Betting on hypothetical and hazy breakthroughs, like mass battery energy storage as potential backup for 100% variable renewables, is unacceptable when technologies that can catalyse energy transition already exist and are in operation. 

What are we going to tell our children? Our responsibility towards future generations is colossal.

Europe is at a crossroads. The European Green Deal (EGD), a set of policy initiatives carried by the European Commission, aims to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. The EU Taxonomy Regulation, a classification system for sustainable activities and an integral part of the EGD, is a fundamental tool for financing sustainable growth. However, the fate of nuclear remains in question. Will it be considered as a low-carbon source of energy? Or does the issue of radioactive waste automatically disqualify it from the EU’s green label?

While still facing fierce and relentless opposition, further studies are requested to prove the “do no significant harm” aspects of nuclear energy15The European Commission has decided to call upon a special expert group to investigate the matter and submit a report in 2021. “After weighing up the different options, the Commission has decided to request the [Commission’s] Joint Research Centre to draft a technical report on the ‘do no significant harm’ aspects of nuclear energy,” the EU executive explains in a document put online on 10 June. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/business_economy_euro/banking_and_finance/documents/200610-sustainable-finance-teg-taxonomy-green-bond-standard-faq_en.pdf. Yet the clock is ticking, and the EU’s division over nuclear in this first round of fights against climate change might set up a losing streak. Understanding nuclear power as one of the key components in reaching decarbonisation of the world economy is growing around the world and Europe needs to keep pace. 

When we look back five years from now, there will not be one hero or villain. We will all be either heroes or villains: collectively. That is why we need to come together for the sake of ensuring that energy transition effectively meets tomorrow’s risks.  

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