Energy harmony on a major scale

12 July 2016

A diverse and balanced energy mix is best for people and the planet. Achieving this globally means nuclear energy should really expand more than most expect, but this requires a concerted effort by the entire nuclear community and its stakeholders to remove barriers to growth, writes Agneta Rising.

Providing enough electricity for everybody to live well is a huge challenge - and one which still hasn't been successfully met in some parts of the world. First and foremost, electricity must be made available where and when it is needed. Other questions are secondary to the primary needs of energy availability and security. This is important to keep in mind when constructing any global outlook for electricity, for which there is a huge growing demand among two thirds of the world's population.

When considering complexities such as local conditions (geography, climate, population density, infrastructure), environmental considerations (greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, land/water impacts) and the ever-changing face of electricity end-use, it is clear that no single generating technology is the best tool for the entire job. A diverse and balanced mix is best, one which works in harmony with the needs of people and the realities of our environment.

Running entirely counter to this principle, lobbyists pushing '100% renewables' visions disregard the global need for diversity in the energy system. This makes the task of balancing cost, energy security, and environmental considerations all the more difficult. Such voices seem to dominate energy policy discussion these days, but regrettably, they make no practical attempt to address all competing factors.

Tipping the energy scales

It is still the case that fossil fuels provide the vast majority of global energy requirements across all sectors - electricity, transport and heating. This remarkably versatile and scalable form of energy has provided the backbone for the development of human civilisation since the industrial revolution. The fact that burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases which contribute to an accelerated and dangerous rate of climate change is, put simply, a tragedy. The global scientific consensus is that within a few short decades we must achieve a great reduction of their share in the energy mix, and perhaps find a way to sequester their emissions, if we are to prevent a greater than two degree rise in average temperature. We cannot afford to wait a decade or more to start decarbonising energy supply. This massive endeavour must start building momentum from today, and requires the expanded use of all currently available low-carbon technologies.

It does not receive a lot of attention, but of all the individual electricity sources in the International Energy Agency's (IEA's) 2-degree scenario, nuclear energy has the largest single role to play. Expanding to supply roughly 17% of electricity by 2050 requires substantial capacity addition far beyond the rate of new build we see in the Western world today. Here it is worth noting however that while nuclear energy is a technology proven at almost any scale in a system we still don't know if large-scale intermittent renewable deployment, energy storage or CCS will turn out to be technically or economically viable. In addition, the electricity demand forecast may turn out to be simply too low. Greater than expected urbanisation or electrification of transportation could well drive this up. This motivates the case for raising the target for future nuclear energy deployment even beyond the one indicated by IEA.

Harmony is an initiative by the global nuclear industry to meet the growing demand for reliable, affordable and clean electricity in a decarbonised future. The target is for nuclear energy to supply at least 25 percent of global electricity by 2050. For this purpose we have set up a work program supporting a level playing field for all low-carbon technologies, harmonised regulatory processes and an effective safety paradigm.

Based on the 2-degree scenario the World Nuclear Association has developed its own vision for the future of electricity - Harmony (see box). In this, nuclear energy expands to supply 25% of electricity by 2050 and forms part of a diverse mix of available low-carbon generating technologies which are deployed in such a manner that the benefits of each are maximised while the negative impacts are minimised. Renewables, nuclear and a greatly reduced level of fossil fuel work together in harmony to ensure a reliable, affordable and clean energy supply. In this optimised energy system the needs for societal development and prosperity are finely balanced against those of the natural environment.

Global cooperation - achieving nuclear harmony

To grow from supplying 11% of global electricity today to 25% in 2050 will require roughly 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity to be constructed - depending on other factors like reactor retirements, electricity demand growth etc. These targets (25% of supply, 1000 GWe of new nuclear by 2050) may seem underwhelming to some and far-fetched to others, but a great deal of consideration has gone into them and they were set after extensive consultation with leading nuclear industry figures.

Firstly, let it be noted that the targets do not rely on the expected commercialisation of any advanced reactor designs. A quarter (25%) of electricity generation easily fits within the baseload profile of most countries and this could readily be met by currently available reactor technology. However, the targets should incentivise the development of new nuclear technologies which provide increased flexibility and versatility to accommodate the evolution of supply and demand profiles in future energy systems. The nuclear industry is by no means compelled to change its core product, but innovating and expanding the range of its offerings should increase the accessibility of nuclear energy in certain markets. Adding impetus to this, a 25% global target means that some countries will have to do more than this and others less.

Rather than focusing purely on technology, it is vital that the global industry identifies and focuses on demolishing the real barriers to growth. The World Nuclear Association has determined the following objectives as key to achieving the Harmony goal. The global nuclear industry should seek to realise:

• A level playing field. Where countries introduce technology neutral market frameworks that permit all low-carbon technologies, valuing not only levelised costs, but also system reliability and environmental benefits.

• Harmonised regulatory processes. So that flow-on efficiencies can be achieved with global codes & standards and efficient licensing of current and new technology.

• An effective safety paradigm. This should increase genuine public wellbeing by reducing emissions from polluting sources, and ensuring high nuclear safety standards are met.

These will have to be met on a national and global scale if we are to reach the Harmony* targets, and thereby reduce the risk of run-away climate change.

The nuclear industry must show the way. The harmony of purpose that characterised national nuclear programs in the early years has to be applied now to the global enterprise. It is a point of fact that the rates at which new reactors must be constructed in order to meet the Harmony targets are no higher than has been achieved historically. The major differences are the many new locations where new construction is needed and the modern landscape of social and economic issues. These present new and often unfamiliar challenges, requiring solution-oriented responses. Every organisation in the established nuclear community - from research, government, regulation, design, operation, decommissioning and waste management - should focus their efforts on overcoming these. To achieve the Harmony goals the global nuclear community must work together in a highly cooperative way, but on a new set of problems. Here the World Nuclear Association is keen to lead the way.

Agneta Rising

This article first appeared in Nuclear Engineering International

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Agneta Rising has been the Director General of the World Nuclear Association since January 2013. Previous to this, Rising was Vice President Environment at Vattenfall AB and Director for Nuclear Business Development at Vattenfall Generation. Agneta Rising became chairman of the Uranium Institute in May 2000, and presided over its transformation into the World Nuclear Association in 2001.