Ranking energy security risks for the net-zero age

29 July 2021

A new study published yesterday by the New Nuclear Watch Institute (NNWI) finds that the "supposed dependency concerns" associated with the host-vendor relationship in the nuclear energy sector are "historically and practically unfounded". The report - Energy Security in the Age of Net-Zero Ambitions and the System Value of Nuclear Power - focuses on the issue of energy security and the important contributions that nuclear power can make towards maintaining and strengthening it as energy systems decarbonise, both along the various transition pathways that energy systems have started upon and at their eventual low-carbon endpoint.

Panellists in the NNWI webinar yesterday

The report says that, contrary to some media and political narrative, the risks to energy security arising from the involvement of non-OECD nuclear vendors at each stage of the plant’s lifecycle, from before construction through operation to decommissioning, "are of a low degree, manageable and can be mitigated through prudent regulatory measures".

Unveiling the report, NNWI Chairman Tim Yeo said: "Climate change is now an existential threat to the human species. To overcome this challenge, governments around the world must set aside geopolitical considerations at once and unite to deploy all available low-carbon technologies."

He added: "Nuclear power is proven as the most reliable way to generate large-scale clean electricity. The nature of the nuclear industry means that the interests of equipment suppliers, plant developers and customers are closely aligned. The risks to energy security from using imported nuclear technology can actually be more easily managed, and are therefore potentially lower, than relying on imported fossil fuels."

New nuclear build enhances system-level energy security, increases the resilience of the electricity grid, and helps to reduce dependency on energy imports, the report says. It makes a case for establishing and preserving a diversified, low-carbon generation mix during the transition to a decarbonised energy system, arguing that reducing nuclear capacity - "whether by intentional phase-out or failure to commit to new build" - poses significant risks to energy security.

Ranking risk

During a panel discussion held to launch the report, NNWI Senior Researcher Charles Hart stressed how nuclear power is a currently available solution to energy security risk for policy makers in their decarbonisation efforts.

"As we continue towards decarbonisation, there are forward-looking risks, whether that’s the development of unproven technologies, how the generation mix of our import partners expands, how the cost curve of renewable development evolves, how we adapt grid infrastructure to renewable deployment, what is the impact of decentralisation. All these things are part of the process of establishing a diversified energy mix, but what we do not need to lose sight of is that we have a workable solution at present. While it will be the backbone to a broader, diversified system, we need to acknowledge the energy security value that is provided to the whole system from nuclear power. The second step is realising that that value is going to be an important determinant of whether or not, or when, and the speed at which decarbonisation is ultimately achieved. So acknowledging the security value of nuclear power, alongside its value as decarbonised power, is vital."

Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA & Global Political Research at macroeconomic forecasting consultancy TS Lombard, spoke of the need to keep the energy consumer in mind.

"It's important to take a step back, even from the broad questions which are set out in today's NNWI report, and concentrate on the combination of urgency in relation to greenhouse gas emissions but also the public acceptance. Policy makers must combine and will end up having to adopt a variety of diversified and hence secure themes and strategies that deliver the goods on low-carbon electricity generation, but also compensate those who will be most disrupted in their livelihoods," he said. "I say that not in the spirit of advocacy but in the spirit of analytical prognosis."

Kirsty Gogan, managing director of LucidCatalyst, said net-zero planning should not be overly technological.

"One of the key defining factors of the energy discourse is a very narrow, technology-led view. It's almost like we've confused the means with the end. So much of the discourse has focused on advocating for renewables without really taking into account the system-wide effects that a large build-out of renewables into our energy systems will have in terms of all kinds of things - costs to the consumer, disruption to reliable electricity supplies, the effects of climate on the provision of clean, reliable, affordable electricity, and indeed the sort of environmental justice and the socio-economic effects on communities that are facing a major transition. There's a more sophisticated discussion that's needed and I'm really grateful to the NNWI for helping move that forward today with this interesting report so that we can have a much broader perspective on the risks, challenges, opportunities and indeed just recognise that a more diverse set of clean energy technologies will help to mitigate those risks."

Lincoln Hill, director of policy and external affairs at the UK's Nuclear Industry Association, pointed out the contradiction between the government's net-zero ambition and the country's actual electricity mix, particularly given its commitment to phase out coal and its over-reliance on gas imports. Last month, that mix was: gas (36%), nuclear (18%), wind (15%), solar (13%), imports (13%), biomass (8%), hydro (1%) and coal (1%).

"We have a long way to go here in the UK," Hill said. "You only have one source listed here that is both reliable (not variable) and low carbon, and that is British, and that's nuclear. Everything else depends on some combination of variability ... We import about half of our gas supplies, which is very high carbon compared to nuclear and the other zero-carbon generators, and it is also volatile because we're competing in a huge global market for the supplies that are available and that produces at times very pronounced volatility.

"It's not just a problem we've seen here; Japan has had a huge problem with their gas dependency since they turned off what is otherwise a huge nuclear fleet. But for us, when you hear about the costs of different kinds of generation, to cover the gaps that we had in generation this past January, gas generation was going to for GBP1500/MWh on the day-ahead market and for GBP4000/MWh on the spot market. Those were both records, but that is the trend that's going to get even worse. So as we consider our energy security, gas - even though it's firm like nuclear and not dependent on the weather - is not a good solution for a secure, stable, net-zero future."

Robert Ichord, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Centre, recalled the growth in investment in nuclear power - particularly in the USA, Europe and Japan - in the years following the oil embargo of 1973 and the subsequent escalation in the price of oil. Now the global crisis of climate change is leading to a growing realisation, he said, of the "vulnerability" of electricity grids, which was illustrated by the sustained blackouts experienced in Texas early this year amid freezing temperatures as a result of a weakened electricity system.

"The Texas crisis affected all fuels, including nuclear, and there needs to be a ranking of risk and much more consideration of this especially in the competitive market framework that exists in Texas," Ichord said. "Policy issues are going to be very important globally. Issues related to the market design of electricity systems, issues related to carbon pricing, government tax and fiscal incentives for new sources to reduce carbon emissions."

Referring to the EU Taxonomy on Sustainable Finance, he said he was "surprised that there hasn't been a greater recognition" of nuclear energy's ability to help the bloc achieve its emission reduction targets. This fact was at odds, he said, with the need to phase out coal.

"In Eastern Europe, where I worked for decades, you've got Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria that are looking at nuclear as being a critical part of their future and to help reduce their coal use. It's difficult to reconcile those conflicting political agendas, but I think you can manage the waste issues and the other issues that tend to be highlighted as reasons why nuclear shouldn’t be considered as an environmentally sustainable technology, especially when you look at the options. What's Germany going to do when they close down their nuclear plants? Are they going to build gas plants?"

NNWI is a UK-based think-tank, focused on the international development of nuclear energy as a means for governments to safeguard their long-term sustainable energy needs. A recording of the webinar is here.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News