Nuclear innovation needed for decarbonisation: webinar

27 May 2021

Failure to include a role for nuclear heat in mainstream scenarios proposed to achieve net-zero by 2050 is an opportunity lost, participants in a World Nuclear Association-hosted webinar, The role of nuclear beyond electricity, said yesterday.

Webinar participants (clockwise from top left) Ingersoll, Bilbao y León, Gorman and Sawyer

Nuclear is the only zero-carbon energy source that can produce both electricity and heat and this opens very exciting opportunities to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors such as industry, heavy transport, and many other sectors beyond electricity, World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León said in her introduction to the webinar.

"Unfortunately, this very important potential is currently not very well considered - or not considered at all - in any of the mainstream scenarios proposed to achieve net-zero by 2050," she said. "The IPCC has developed over 90 scenarios, and just last week the International Energy Agency released a very important report … that provides a "how-to" guide for global decision makers to achieve the 1.5°C goal. This report has been labelled as one of the most technically feasible, cost-effective and socially acceptable paths to net-zero.

"While most of the scenarios include a contribution from nuclear energy for the generation of electricity - even doubling the contribution of nuclear for electricity generation - none of these scenarios actually include any role whatsoever for nuclear heat.

"In our opinion, this is a great opportunity that is lost," she said. "Given the urgency and the enormity of the climate change challenge we are facing, it is very regrettable that a tool such as zero-carbon nuclear heat that is readily available right now is not being used."

The webinar highlighted two recent studies evaluating the role that nuclear can play beyond the decarbonisation of electricity systems: EnviroEconomics and Navius Research's Emission and Economic Implications for Canada of Using Small Modular Reactors in Heavy Industry, commissioned by the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA); and TerraPraxis's report, Missing link to a livable climate: How hydrogen-enabled synthetic fuels can help deliver the Paris goals, published in September 2020.

Multiple markets for small reactors exist in Canada, both on-grid at existing licensed nuclear sites and in applications such as mining, process heat, and remote communities, CNA President and CEO John Gorman said. The research found that across all scenarios, SMRs delivered low-cost emission reductions, driving down the cost of getting to net-zero as a nation.

On average, the study found that SMRs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 14 million tonnes per year, EnviroEconomics' Dave Sawyer said. Over the period 2035 to 2050, SMRs could reduce Canadian emissions by 216 megatonnes in the heavy industrial sector alone. At the same time, using SMRs could also free up low-emitting, but still-scarce, energy carriers like hydrogen and renewable natural gas to be used in those sectors where they are most needed, opening up less expensive pathways for Canada to reach net-zero by 2050.

Sawyer described the abatement technologies in the study's scenarios as "safe bets" - technologies which are already in existence in today and are competing, such as energy efficiency and renewables, and "wild cards" with multiple possible pathways for emissions reduction, such as hydrogen, electrification and SMRs. The potential impacts of wild cards, especially in "hard-to-abate" areas are "really important" in reaching net-zero, he said. "We can only get so far [in carbon reductions] from safe bets, but it's these wild cards that really come in, in the future. Picking "single winners" from such technologies now could be problematic in the longer term. "There's a reason we need to think about all these technologies and nurture them, not lock ourselves into technology choices that lead to dead ends," he said.

To-do list

The "to-do" list in order to reach net-zero by 2050 will include repowering all coal plants with new heat source, converting all liquid fuel use to carbon-neutral and replacing natural gas use with hydrogen or ammonia at the same time as massively increasing generating capacity in some parts of the world and electrifying as much as possible, Eric Ingersoll, co-founder and managing director of TerraPraxis, said.

"Each of these is a huge task, and we need to do all of them, and more - very, very fast," he said.

To make decarbonisation work, solutions would have to be cheap, scalable, and rapidly deployable. The Missing link report investigates using advanced heat sources - SMRs - and leveraging existing oil and gas industry infrastructure for the production of hydrogen and synthetic fuels at prices that will be competitive with the normal range of oil prices.

"If you can make fuels that are cost-competitive and carbon-neutral, policymakers and consumers will have an easier time decarbonising," Ingersoll said.

Action beyond words

Questioned by Bilbao y León about the perception of SMRs, Gorman said nuclear is now acknowledged at the government level in Canada as "clean and needed" for a net-zero future. This has involved a "concerted and focused effort needing patience and understanding on all sides", he said, but there is now an understanding that SMRs will be required, and an appreciation by stakeholders that SMRs complement, rather than compete with, other electricity sources.

Many nations and organisations are making pledges to reach net-zero but the United Nations Framework Commission on Climate Change's synthesis report on nationally Nationally Determined Contributions - which set out each country's intended climate actions - suggest the world is on target for far less than the emissions reductions it needs to achieve, Bilbao y León noted. "In reality we're not getting there - what do we need to do to get action beyond the words?" she asked the panellists.

"We have to convince the world that we are not going to be able to achieve a net-zero future without nuclear - and not just nuclear electricity, but for all of its uses," Gorman replied. "We have to demonstrate that SMRs are an enabler for some existing technologies and are going to create opportunities." Decarbonising economies will need an increase in generation capacity of two to three times above current levels, but political focus is on cleaning the existing grid rather than expanding capacity. "We need to go much further," he said.

Sawyer called for long-term policy packages to support and encourage investment in innovation and  in wild card technologies. "Governments have to demonstrate that they mean it," he said. "Innovators need to believe [their technology] will be deployed and businesses need to believe they need to swap their capital out to ultra-low emitting technologies."

"We need to move from advocacy … to planning how we're going to accomplish these things in the timeframe that we have," Ingersoll said. "We need to move from 'we have a target' to 'this is how we're going to do these things', which would also lead to a recognition of the different risks presented by multiple pathways. He called for broad strategies, and risk-informed planning. "We need to start making concrete plans," he said. "We don't have time to figure it out as we go along."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News