As the impact of global climate change continues to be felt there is increasing demand for the development of low-carbon power generation technologies. Andrew Dann talks to Dr. Jonathan Cobb of the World Nuclear Association about the place of nuclear energy in developing a low-carbon energy solution

While the debate surrounding climate change may still have some dissenters, the current scientific consensus is that manmade CO2 emissions are a major driving force in the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA for example, asserts that the planet’s climate is warming and lists statements from 18 leading American and international leading scientific organisations in support of this conclusion. A statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers (2014) for example, states that: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and the sea level has risen.” While later adding that: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

The consensus on the issue of global warming now extends to every corner of the world. The State of California for example, currently hosts a list of around 200 global organisations ranging from the Academia Chilena de Ciencias, Chile to the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences that all support the premise that climate change has been caused by human action. Also in support of the consensus are organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) have collaborated to collect data illustrating the change in global surface temperature relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures. The collected results show that in a 134-year record of results from 1881 to 2015, that the ten warmest recorded years have all occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. NASA and GISS temperature analysis further suggests that this translates to an average global temperature rise of about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit) since 1880. To combat and limit the impact of industry on climate change through CO2 emission, governments around the world are increasingly implementing mitigation measures such as carbon taxes and subsidies for renewable fuels. Crucially there is increasing interest in encouraging the further development of alternative power generation methods to take over from fossil fuel burning to aid the development an effective CO2 mitigation solution.

“It is clear that we need to make very significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions if we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The energy sector, electricity generation in particular, is an area where the ability to decarbonise has been demonstrated with technologies available today. By the middle of this century we may need to eliminate 80 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions from this sector,” reveals World Nuclear Association (WNA) Senior Communication Manager, Dr Jonathan Cobb. “In Europe alone countries such as France, Sweden and Switzerland have been able to reduce fossil fuel generation to very low shares of the generation mix and they have done this by combining nuclear energy with renewable power generation.”

Both the importance of limiting the global rise in temperature and the role of nuclear energy in mitigating CO2 emissions were discussed at the Conference of Parties (COP) 21, also known as the Paris Climate Conference, during 2015. While the conference led to the establishment of ambitious targets for reducing the impact of global warming, there is less certainty regarding how the targets will be reached, as Jonathan explains: “The Paris Agreement committed the international community to keeping the global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels to less than 2° Celsius, with the aim of going further to limit the rise to 1.5° Celsius. To achieve even just the 2° Celsius target will require significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. What the Paris Agreement doesn’t do is say how the international community is going to achieve this. The national plans put forward by most nations ahead of COP 21 don’t come close to making the kinds of reductions in emissions that will be necessary. We will need to do more in all sectors, not just the energy sector, but nuclear energy has a very important role to play in more ambitious energy policies.”

Nuclear power possesses several benefits that differentiate it as a useful tool in limiting the impact of climate change. For example, nuclear power is able to provide constant and reliable supplies of low carbon electricity when compared to other low carbon options. The development of a broader range of capacity options with the introduction of small modular reactors (SMRs) and the ability to adjust the output of power according to demand through the use of mod-merit power plants, will also increase the suitability of nuclear generation for different grid requirements. “Nuclear power supplies a reliable baseload that can complement generation from other low carbon sources. It also works particularly well with hydropower, as shown in France, Switzerland, Sweden and also the Canadian province of Ontario. The right mix of solar and nuclear can also make a good contribution, with solar helping meet daytime peaks and nuclear supplying the underlying demand,” Jonathan says. “France succeeded in moving from a fossil fuel-dominated generation mix to more than 75 per cent low carbon generation in just two decades with nuclear energy. It is important that we make a priority of decarbonisation of electricity generation as achieving similar reductions in other sectors is likely to be much more challenging.”

Although the evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity and that the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining, one of the greatest challenges facing the nuclear energy industry is one of public perception. There have been only three major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power during over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries, but public fears can still hinder the development of new plants. “One of the issues facing the nuclear industry is that people hear about nuclear energy far more often than they do about the other forms of electricity generation and what they hear isn’t always correct – there’s no long running cartoon series where the lead character works in a coal-fired power plant! For a better understanding of nuclear energy there needs to be a better education of all the different forms of electricity generation so that we can understand the comparative merits of all the different energy choices,” Jonathan explains. “Our website is one of the main ways in which we contribute to providing a better understanding of nuclear energy. Our information library offers in-depth profiles of more than countries as well as each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. We also have a news service to bring information on the latest developments.”

Despite these challenges, at the time of writing there are currently 66 nuclear reactors under construction and global and nuclear build rates are at their highest level for more than 25 years. During 2015 for example, nearly ten GW of new nuclear capacity started supplying electricity, representing twice the capacity added during previous years. Within the UK the industry is currently still waiting to see if the EDF Hinkley Point 3 project will go ahead, however should the plant be built it will represent the first of a new generation of new nuclear plants in the country and supply around seven per cent of the state’s energy needs. “This project at Hinkley, as well as other new nuclear projects proposed at Sizewell, Moorside, Wylfa, Oldbury and Bradwell, can make a very significant contribution to helping the UK meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. We believe that globally we will need to add 1000 GW of new nuclear capacity by 2050 as our contribution to reaching the emissions targets agreed in Paris at COP 21. To do this we need to continue from the 10 GW additions seen in 2015 and ramp that up until global additions are running at 33 GW per year,” Jonathan observes.

“These build rates are similar to those seen in the 1980s. To help encourage these rates in the future we need to see technology-neutral market frameworks that permit all lowcarbon technologies, valuing not only carbon costs, but also system reliability and environmental benefits. To this end the WNA will be focusing on helping its members with the continued operation of the existing global fleet of reactors, especially those facing challenging market conditions. This also means supporting our member companies working in mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication and the other sectors of the nuclear fuel cycle that support those reactors,” he concludes. “The next few years will also be an exciting time for us, as the first of a new generation of reactors start to supply electricity, including those soon to come online in China, in Europe and the US.”

The World Nuclear Association
The World Nuclear Association is a network of around 170 of the world’s leading nuclear companies in over 35 countries and represents all aspects of the global nuclear industry. Its members include virtually all of the world’s uranium mining, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication companies, all major reactor vendors, nuclear utilities providing 70 per cent of world nuclear generation, major nuclear engineering, construction, and waste management companies. The association was established in 2001 with a mission is to promote a wider understanding of nuclear energy among key international influencers by producing authoritative information, developing common industry positions, and contributing to the energy debate.

For further information please visit: world-nuclear.org