Companies outline net-zero actions ahead of COP26

29 October 2021

Nuclear technologies have a vital contribution to make in achieving net-zero but nuclear companies are working at the same time to address their own greenhouse gas emissions. Panellists at a World Nuclear Association Strategic eForum, Committing to Net Zero, this week discussed corporate emissions pledges and what nuclear technologies can offer as COP26 draws near.

The eForum panel on 26 October (Image: World Nuclear Association)

The event, moderated by World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León, is the latest in a series sponsored by Urenco. Panellists were: Laurence Gazagnes,senior executive vice president of Orano's Health, Safety & Environment department; Ralph Hunter, managing director and chief operating officer of Exelon Nuclear Partners; Zuzana Krejcirikova, director of public affairs at CEZ; Kirk Schnoebelen, head of sales at Urenco; and Roger Martella, vice president and chief sustainability officer at General Electric Company (GE).

As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) approaches, governments are being called to commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions targets and the COP26 Presidency itself calling for a commitment to rapidly phase out coal, Bilbao y León said. But what can nuclear technologies contribute to achieving net-zero, and what are nuclear companies going to do to address their own greenhouse gas emissions?

Each of the companies represented on the panel have made pledges to address their own greenhouse gas emissions, and all of the panellists outlined their individual actions and commitments.

Enrichment company Urenco has a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and is currently working to finalise its own roadmap to net-zero, Schnoebelen said. "It's clearly the right thing to do - both for society and for Urenco", he said. "For nuclear power to be credible in the net-zero debate, the supply chains must also be strongly committed to reduce carbon emissions."

Net-zero commitments from the nuclear supply chain also make an even stronger case for a more significant contribution from nuclear power to help meet net-zero goals, he added, pointing to a recent study by Aurora Energy Research - commissioned by Urenco - which found both nuclear and renewables are needed for power and hydrogen production to facilitate rapid decarbonisation and cut dependency on fossil fuels, at a minimum cost. "We believe nuclear power has a key role alongside renewables in a clean energy transition through the generation of electricity and for the production of hydrogen for transportation and industrial use," he said.

"For COP26, it is vitally important for the nuclear industry to participate in the dialogue and debate to make the case that nuclear energy is a critical part of the solution for climate change and achieving decarbonisation," he said.

Technology goals

Advanced nuclear fuels - using fuel enriched above 5% uranium-235 - will serve to increase the economic efficiency of current plants to ensure they continue to operate. Urenco is working to relicense its UK and US plants to meet the demand for uranium enriched up to 10% U-235 and currently anticipates being able to supply reload quantities of such fuel by late 2024, he said. Meanwhile, fuels with enrichment above 10% U-235 - high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) - will be needed to support the deployment of advanced reactors. Existing enrichment facilities can be leveraged to support the development of HALEU production, and this will help to bring down development costs. "Urenco is developing the design of a HALEU production facility, and believes co-location of downstream conversion, and/or fabrication facilities will be key to minimising risk and the cost of fuelling advanced reactors," Schnoebelen said. Urenco is also leading the development of the high-temperature U-Battery advanced modular reactor which would use such fuel.

Decarbonisation of energy must be achieved at the same time as building resiliency, Martella said. Technology and innovation are key to meeting these simultaneous goals, ensuring access to reliable, affordable, sustainable power at the same time as decarbonising it. This also means working in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

GE, he said, is focused on solving three of the world's most pressing sustainability challenges: the energy transition and climate change; the future of flight; and delivering precision healthcare to the half of the world's population that does not currently have access to it. This requires investing in researching and developing successful technologies to reduce its own carbon footprint and help its customers meet needs, but even more importantly, investing in breakthrough technologies - the technologies the world will need over the coming years to meet net-zero goals.

"In the energy space we think a lot about carbon capture and sequestration, and hydrogen as a fuel. But advanced nuclear small modular reactors are absolutely critical and key to meeting net-zero ambitions," he said.

Decarbonising and building grid resiliency are mutually achievable goals, but no company can solve these issues alone, he said. GE is investing in BWRX and Terrapower SMR projects, and partnership and collaboration - with governmental support to create suitable policy environments - will be needed to bring such projects to demonstration.

Portfolio challenges

CEZ has also committed to be carbon neutral by 2050, Krejcirikova said, and in May this year published its Clean Energy for Tomorrow strategy, in which it sets targets to reduce carbon emissions and intensity by the earlier deadline of 2030 and to reduce the share of coal-fired electricity generation from 39% in 2019 to 12.5% by 2030. The company plans to invest "massively" in renewables, but also wants to build new nuclear. "We have already declared our aim to build one new unit at Dukovany, but we also want to look at small modular reactors," she said.

District heating systems - which are currently based on coal - present a big decarbonisation challenge for CEZ, she said. Decarbonising this sector will either mean moving to a more decentralised system or converting coal-fired heat provision to gas, but legislative support - and clarity on the treatment of gas under the EU Taxonomy - will be needed if this is to happen. CEZ is investing in renewables but these have "limitations" both in terms of ability to replace coal and also licensing issues, in particular for wind.

There is broad agreement in the Czech government that there are market failures that need to be addressed, and recognition that new nuclear projects will need state aid scheme, she noted. The Czech government is working on legislative solutions to support the building of new nuclear capacity, including a power purchase agreement which would work alongside a state loan.

Uncertainties over the EU Taxonomy Regulation are a barrier to investment in both gas and nuclear, and also potential investments in hydrogen, she said. "Everything is still subject to political debate [rather than based on science]" she said.

Clean energy for good

Exelon has been on a climate change advocacy mission since 2005, Hunter said. For the generation side of the company - which includes wind, solar, hydro in addition to its nuclear assets - reducing carbon has been "pretty easy", but its utility side has been more difficult to clean up, he said. To address that, the company has announced a "path to clean" commitment for all operational energy sources used by the utility side to at least 50% by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.

On the generation side - where Exelon already has a clean fleet - commitments will be on how to use this for "good", he said, giving as examples hydrogen production, which can provide an energy storage medium for a carbon-free future; and the possibility of moving large industrial users of power to nuclear. These include bitcoin mining - which potentially will use "huge" amounts of energy - or massive data centres, which need to be available all the time. In addition, the company is partnering with various companies on SMR and AMR initiatives.

A US Department of Energy-funded project is under way to demonstrate the onsite production, storage and usage of hydrogen at the Nine Mile Point plant, Hunter said, and Exelon is also looking at the use of hydrogen in other difficult-to-decarbonise operations, such as transportation. "We believe … we can participate not only in the production of hydrogen, but also [by supporting the building of hydrogen infrastructure] in its application further down the road," he said.

Net-zero needs to be seen as a global-level concept which needs to go beyond national and corporate carbon reduction pledges, Gazagnes said. Most of Orano's Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions originate in France - which already enjoys very low-carbon electricity thanks to nuclear, she said. The company is working to address its Scope 3 carbon emissions, she said. (Scope 1 emissions are direct greenhouse emissions from an organisation's own sources; Scope 2 emissions are those it makes indirectly, by the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling; and Scope 3 emissions are those it indirectly impacts in its value chain.)

Areas of innovation the company is working on further along the value-chain include health, with the development of new radioisotope-based cancer treatments; power generation, with the recycling of nuclear materials; and recycling of other strategic materials, such as those contained in car batteries.

"We do power generation - but we are also trying to have an impact in the health and recycling [carbon] footprint," she said.

A recording of the eForum will be made available shortly.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News