Viewpoint: Clean energy policies key to meeting Harmony goals

21 August 2018

Changes in energy policy, including in the USA, are needed in order to achieve the aims of the Harmony Programme, writes Josh Freed, who spoke on this topic at World Nuclear Association Symposium 2018 in September.

Policies changes may be required for a small nuclear reactor to provide power to remote Arctic communities (Image: Third Way)

Climate impacts are intensifying by the day and the global nuclear sector must do more to position itself as a part of a larger coalition of technologies that are being mobilised in the climate fight. This will require new reactor types in a variety of sizes, but technology innovation alone will not be enough. The nuclear sector must also innovate new policy approaches, new business strategies, and develop better ways to communicate and engage communities who want access to nuclear technologies.

The World Nuclear Association's Harmony Programme sets a roadmap for how we might achieve these non-technical, yet absolutely essential, forms of innovation - and ultimately position nuclear energy technologies to play a major role in the global climate response. Harmony prescribes three main policy actions to reach the goal of 1000 GW of new nuclear generation by 2050:

  1. to establish a level playing field for all low-carbon energy sources;
  2. to support a harmonised regulatory process globally; and
  3. to create an effective safety paradigm that helps contextualise the risk of all energy sources.

Developing policies to achieve these objectives and support the growth of nuclear energy is a challenge. Even in the USA, a pioneer of nuclear energy technology and long-time leader in the global nuclear market, federal policy has struggled to keep up alongside a burgeoning advanced reactor community. As home to this ambitious group of reactor developers, the USA has a unique responsibility on the world stage to continue to set the bar for safety and security, and to enable the commercialisation and export of these new technologies. There are several efforts underway that could make it easier for America to do its part toward Harmony's goal, and some outstanding challenges the US will need to address to continue to be a provider of nuclear energy technologies globally.

Leveling the playing field for all low-carbon resources may be the most pivotal action nations can take toward promoting nuclear energy. It's also one of the trickiest to address in the USA, where the party controlling the legislative and executive branches of government is hesitant to acknowledge the reality of climate change - let alone commit to solutions.

There is some evidence of movement on this front. A recent carbon tax bill made a big splash in the American press because it was sponsored by a Republican policymaker. Though a fair price on carbon emissions would be the ultimate bulldozer to level the energy playing field, this kind of sweeping, climate-centric policy stands no chance in Washington while Republicans control the Congress and the White House. The real action, as it turns out, might be at the sub-national level.

As climate-forward states take a harder look at exactly how they're going to achieve their emissions goals, they seem to be realizing the value of additional carbon-free resources beyond renewables. Massachusetts, a historically progressive state on clean energy and climate issues, adjusted its renewable portfolio standard in 2017, adding a tier that would allow new nuclear plants to contribute to a low-carbon mandate covering over one-third of the state's power in 2050. And California, a global front-runner on renewables, is considering a similar clean energy standard model that would let the state take advantage of nuclear and carbon capture as it aims to completely decarbonize its power sector. Even some conservative states are giving this option a look. In right-leaning Arizona, discussion is heating up around an 80% clean energy standard that would be open to non-renewable sources of carbon-free power like nuclear.

On the regulatory front, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is taking important steps to modernise the licensing process for advanced nuclear reactors by shifting to a risk-informed approach like Canada and the UK. A key milestone is the completion of a structured, staged review of advanced reactors that can help inform licensing project plans for developers in the licensing process going forward. A bipartisan coalition of Congressional champions have introduced legislation to codify this approach and there is a new push by nuclear advocates to streamline the export process. Both of these efforts, if successful, will help harmonize the US regulatory approach to better serve countries who are hungry for low-carbon energy in the global marketplace.

Putting the risks associated with nuclear in proper context alongside other energy resource risks is also extremely important. We are seeing this play out most vividly when comparing nuclear to the climate risks carried by fossil fuel use. When confronted with the potential closure of existing plants, states, local communities, and environmental organisations have done detailed assessments of the resulting damage from continued fossil generation and the locking-in of additional natural gas infrastructure. This has led a surprising number of them to acknowledge (often for the first time) the value of nuclear energy. These stakeholders have successfully secured policies in states like New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut to support nuclear reactors at risk of premature closure. That sentiment for the existing fleet is starting to spread to communities that see new reactors as a way to shift away from that risk.

For instance, dozens of US communities are assessing the environmental costs of coal, and choosing nuclear energy to support their future energy needs. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Association (UAMPS), is a public, member-led energy cooperative in the intermountain west region of the US. Their members, small towns and cities with municipal utilities that purchase power through UAMPS, are in the process of setting up America's first commercial small modular reactor project. When they were faced with a decision on whether to stick with coal or to go nuclear, they chose nuclear. In partnership with NuScale and the US Department of Energy, these communities will be the early adopters of a potentially game-changing nuclear energy system. Their innovative, community-driven business model could be a transformative example for others as smaller reactors reach niche markets with smaller energy needs across the globe.

To make headway on the critical goals set forth by the Harmony Programme nuclear innovation cannot just be left to the engineers. Harmony's success will depend on an all-hands-on-deck effort across the nuclear community - in business, government, and how we spread the word about nuclear energy to reach the 2050 goals and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.


To learn from some of nuclear energy’s top executives and influencers where the story is headed, register now for the World Nuclear Association Symposium taking place in London this September.

Josh Freed is vice president for the Clean Energy Program at the Washington, DC-based Centrist think tank Third Way.

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