Climate change demands world 'revisits' nuclear, says UNECE director

12 November 2018

The search for solutions to climate change must include discussion of nuclear power, Scott Foster, director of the Sustainable Energy Division of UNECE, told World Nuclear News (WNN) today.

Scott Foster at the UNECE conference in Kiev today (Image: WNN)

Nuclear power has for the first time been included on the programme of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE's) Ministerial Conference of the International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development. In its ninth year, the annual event is being held this week in Kiev.

In an interview with WNN during the conference, Foster said: "The challenges that we've seen since Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima is that the response has been more rebar, more concrete, more containment because they’re concerned about risk. The origins of the risk have almost always been human and institutional, but the response has been technological. So, the consequence has been just rising costs, but not actually addressing the underlying risk.

"One of the issues we're trying to explore at this forum is can we revisit that equation. Is it possible to address the human and institutional risk factors without actually having the corresponding increase in the capital costs of nuclear [power]. Now, there are those who believe that the nuclear long-term waste issue is huge. I won't deny that. There are issues that nuclear has risks that other technologies don’t have. I don't deny that. But we are facing a species existential threat in climate change and, at some point, you have to go, 'Excuse me, but which is the risk we think we can manage, and which is the risk that we can't?' I would suggest the fact that we are in the process of wiping out 50% of the species on this planet, probably including our own, might lead people to a different conclusion."

The UNECE region will play an important role in attaining the international energy and climate objectives that were agreed in 2015, notably the Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals and the agreement reached at the 21st COP meeting in Paris in 2015, referred to as the Paris Agreement. Energy underpins most of these goals, and the energy sector plays a critical role in finding solutions for both sustainable development and climate change mitigation.

Asked how challenging it is for him to include nuclear in discussions with other parts of the United Nations, Foster said: "Nuclear is not in my organisation's mandate per se, but we have organised this forum with explicit segments looking at the nuclear challenge. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna is the one best equipped to address nuclear topics, but we’ve got an ongoing Pathways project, which is exploring what are the strategic options countries have, given their own natural endowments of resources, given their own legislative history, etc. What's their best pathway to achieving the 2030 agenda? You can't have that conversation by excluding something you don't like. So, leave it [fossil fuels] in the ground, or no nuclear? It doesn't leave you with a lot of options."

He added: "Given that 80% of today's energy mix is fossil, it's improbable that we're going to be able to deal with a future that doesn't have fossil in it one way or another. So, what we want to do, in a transparent and fair way, is not pick the technology, not be for or against. I'm not pro-nuclear, but I'm not anti-nuclear. I’m not pro-renewables, but I’m not anti-renewables. The idea is you've got to be very neutral and sterile in your arguments and put them out and say, 'What's the most rational approach for us, collectively, to take in terms of economic, environmental and societal needs?' And that's where you'll get pragmatic and sensible outcomes."

Foster stressed the urgency of the climate change debate.

"We're on a path to 4-6 degrees and right now we're worried about a 1 degree increase in temperatures. The weather effects we’re seeing now are the consequence of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions that happened 20 years ago; there's a lag time that occurs. So, we're going to see all of the emissions that have occurred in the intervening years 20 years hence. Well, excuse me, that gets to be some very scary numbers that we've got to address quite quickly."

Vital role for nuclear

At the conference's plenary session, Agneta Rising, World Nuclear Association's director general, said nuclear generation helps ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. She told delegates that, by offering an alternative to fossil fuels that produce air pollution, nuclear energy helps ensure healthy lives.

Agneta Rising speaking in Kiev today (Image: WNN)

"By allowing rapid decarbonisation of electricity, nuclear helps take urgent action on climate change. Nuclear desalination can provide clean water to help ensure access to water, and by supplying affordable, reliable 24/7 electricity, nuclear contributes to sustainable economic growth," she said.

"Substituting energy supplied by fossil fuels with electricity generated from nuclear energy and other low-carbon sources is a practical proposition to deliver a clean energy transition," she added.

In a statement today, World Nuclear Association noted that the number of influential bodies acknowledging the importance of nuclear energy in the climate and energy challenge is growing. In October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported to the UN on the impacts of climate change and what would be needed to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius. They concluded that achieving the 1.5 degrees goal will require global greenhouse gas emissions to start reducing almost immediately.

Nuclear generation increases by an average of around 2.5 times by 2050 in the 89 mitigation scenarios considered by the IPCC.

The Ninth International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development is co-organised by the government of Ukraine and the five United Nations Regional Commissions in partnership with: United Nations Development Programme; United Nations Industrial Development Organisation; United Nations Institute for Training and Research; UN Environment; The World Bank; International Energy Agency; International Renewable Energy Agency; International Atomic Energy Agency; Global Environment Facility; Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe; European Commission; International Energy Charter; International Energy Forum; the Copenhagen Centre on Energy Efficiency; International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis; Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental Safety, and Energy Technology; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Dartmouth College; Climate Action Network; Oil and Gas Climate Initiative; and World Nuclear Association.

The Forum's goal is to provide a unique opportunity for policymakers and experts from various parts of the energy sector to reflect on the implications of the fast-paced energy transition that UNECE says has become the "new normal", review the activities to date and to make further progress towards meeting the sustainable development goals.

Established in 1947 to encourage economic cooperation among its member states, UNECE is one of five regional commissions under the administrative direction of United Nations headquarters.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News