Nuclear a vital tool in achieving decarbonisation, panel says

05 November 2021

Nuclear energy provides enormous opportunities to bring about a fast, cost-effective and just decarbonisation, World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León said yesterday in a COP26 event titled The Role of Nuclear Energy in a Net-Zero Future. Innovations in technologies - such as small modular reactors (SMRs) - and new ways of financing projects will help nuclear play its role in decarbonising the world, participants said.

The panel discussion during COP26

"Frankly, if we really want to keep on track on the 1.5°C goal that we have, we really are going to need to deploy urgently all the low-carbon energy sources that are proven and we need to do this now," Bilbao y León said. "Nuclear energy is going to be absolutely essential for fast and massive decarbonisation."

International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director General Fatih Birol said it will be a "Herculean task" to transform the entire global energy system in order to achieve net-zero. He said CO2 emissions need to be halved globally over the next ten years through the expansion of solar, wind, hydro, electric vehicles, nuclear power and energy efficiency. However, he said there are other technologies under development - such as different hydrogen applications, advanced material technologies, direct carbon capture and new nuclear technologies (including SMRs) that can play a role.

Nuclear 'invaluable' to UK

"Nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world today," said Greg Hands, UK Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth. "It is a proven, deployable, reliable source of low-carbon energy available whatever the weather. As such, it is a very important tool in the toolbox for many nations as we target net-zero, including the nations looking to phase out coal."

He noted that nuclear has been an "invaluable" part of the country's energy mix since its first nuclear power plant opened in 1956, "long before its significance as a low-carbon technology was realised." Nuclear energy currently provides about 16% of the UK's electricity and avoids the release of millions of tonnes of CO2 every year, Hands said. However, 12 of the UK's 13 operational nuclear power plants are set to close over the next decade.

"When it comes to new nuclear, we need a new nuclear strategy," Hands said. "The important role of nuclear in complementing renewables is why the UK has announced plans to bring at least one further large-scale nuclear power plant to the point of final investment decision by the end of this parliament. That is in addition to Hinkley Point C."

Hands introduced legislation yesterday in the House of Commons to allow the use of a new Regulated Asset Base funding model for nuclear to attract private investment into new nuclear power projects. "The RAB model is basically a greater diversifier of our nuclear capability to open up further possibilities, greater flexibility helping to decarbonise hard-to-reach parts of the global economy as well," he said.

Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said the USA is resolved to addressing climate change and to ensuring that nuclear energy meets its potential in addressing it. "Carbon-free nuclear energy is vital to achieving our decarbonisation goals. Nuclear energy provides more than half of our zero-emissions electricity production in the US and operates reliably 24 hours per day, seven days a week."

Newcomer nuclear countries

"Nuclear is a great source of low-carbon power - it's reliable, we know it works. It's been working around the world for decades," said Sophie Macfarlane-Smith, head of customer business for Rolls-Royce SMR. "What we need is more of it and we need it quickly. The innovations we need to bring forward first are those innovations that allow nuclear power to be used in more locations, in more countries, by more users around the world and we need that fast."

Bilbao y León said nuclear energy can be "used by all countries of any income." She noted of the 39 reactors that have been deployed in the past five years, 30 of these have been deployed in emerging economies. Large nuclear power projects have "been able to catalyse a lot of economic development in many countries."

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi noted that several countries are constructing their first nuclear power plants, including Turkey and Egypt. Other countries - such as Ghana, Kenya and Uzbekistan - are considering the introduction of nuclear into their energy mixes. And some existing nuclear countries are planning more reactors, such as in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, as well as some Eastern European countries. "Nuclear is everywhere, and will be even more," he said.

Ghana's Ambassador to Austria, Philbert Johnson, said the country is "taking concrete steps" to include nuclear energy into its national energy mix as this is in line with its national development targets. "Nuclear energy will guarantee reliable, clean energy at competitive prices."

Poland - which currently generates 70% of electricity from coal - needs to deploy all low- and zero-emission available technologies, including nuclear, said the country's Undersecretary of State for Climate Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński. However, he said achieving its climate goals should not compromise fair access to affordable energy, both for households and industry.

"The benefits of nuclear energy go well beyond the power sector," Guibourgé-Czetwertyński said. "Carbon-intensive industries can be decarbonised to a significant extent but it requires access to low-cost electricity. Nuclear power plants can facilitate this transformation if they are built and operated on a cost-price formula."

He noted Poland's energy policy until 2040, adopted this year, confirms that nuclear power will be a vital part of its new clean energy mix. Under the country's plans, 6-9 GWe of nuclear generating capacity will be in place by 2043. "It is clear that nuclear energy has a key role to play on our track to climate neutrality," Guibourgé-Czetwertyński said.

"For those who say new nuclear has no place - they should revise their opinion," said Grossi. "It is clear nuclear is going to be playing a very key role."

A video of the event can be viewed here.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News