Speech: Nuclear energy innovation for clean growth

03 December 2019

Nuclear energy is a mature and proven low-carbon source of electricity, with a 60-year track record of providing reliable and safe operation. Further innovation and technological development will enable even wider applications aimed at deep decarbonisation of economies around the world and supporting sustainable development. This was the message of King Lee, director of the Harmony Programme at World Nuclear Association, to delegates at the UN side event for Sustainable Development Goal 9, held today at COP25 in Madrid.

King Lee (left) speaking at the side event at COP25 (Image: World Nuclear News)

"At this side event we are discussing innovation and future technologies to drive deep decarbonisation. We have already heard at the start of this conference about the climate emergency and the widening emissions gap. This is why the world urgently needs all low-carbon energy sources to achieve its climate goals.

Nuclear is already an important part of today's clean energy.

Nuclear is the largest source of low-carbon electricity generation in advanced economies today, providing 40% of all low-carbon generation.

The IEA report Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, launched in May, states that, "Without nuclear investment, achieving a sustainable energy system will be much harder, and would have implications for emissions, costs and energy security."

Furthermore, Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, told the US-EU High-Level Industrial Forum on Small Modular and Advanced Reactors, that there is a growing disconnect between political statements and what is happening in reality.

He said it's very important to look at the facts and make use of them, and we all recognise that we need nuclear along with renewables.

Last week the European Parliament adopted a resolution as a contribution to this COP25 dialogue. The resolution states that all technologies - including nuclear - are needed to combat climate change.

The resolution "believes that nuclear energy can play a role in meeting climate objectives because it does not emit greenhouse gases, and can also ensure a significant share of electricity production in Europe ..."

A range of technologies, including nuclear power, will be needed for the clean energy transition around the world.

Global energy is increasingly based around electricity, putting the electricity sector at the heart of the fight against climate change. This means the key to making energy systems clean is to turn the electricity sector from the largest producer of CO2 emissions into a low-carbon source, then further to decarbonise other areas like transport, heating and industry.

While renewable energy sources are expected to continue growing significantly, nuclear power must also play its important part.

For example, the IPCC's report last year on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius showed in a representative middle-of-the-road scenario, nuclear energy will need to increases six times, together with a significant increase in renewables, in order to meet that 1.5 degree target.

In this case nuclear would be contributing 25% of the global electricity mix in 2050.

In addition to electricity generation, nuclear energy can provide solutions to an even wider range of applications.

A large number of advanced water-cooled reactor designs and technologies have been developed. For example, there are 20 different reactor designs that are due to start-up in the five year period 2016 to 2020, with capacities ranging from 35 MWe to 1720 MWe.

Innovative nuclear technologies, such as SMRs, would complement existing large reactors to enable deep decarbonisation as part of the clean energy transition.

There are many examples of innovation in the nuclear industry today that are already paving the way ahead.

The world's first floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov, is ready to start up by the end of this year, providing combined heat and power to remote communities.

China's demonstration high-temperature gas-cooled reactor plant is currently under construction, and is expected to start generating electricity next year. With a design temperature of up to 750 degrees, it has the potential to replace fossil plants for industrial heat application.

As well as generating high temperature process heat, nuclear energy can provide district heating. Russia, several East European countries, Switzerland and Sweden have all had nuclear-fuelled district heating schemes. China's first commercial nuclear heating project started last month at the Haiyang nuclear power plant in Shandong province.

Nuclear energy can also be used to generate hydrogen and to create synthetic fuel. EDF Energy has a project to generate hydrogen from its existing Heysham nuclear power stations in the UK.

Japan's High-Temperature Test Reactor was developed with the specific purpose of hydrogen generation using its high coolant outlet temperature ~1000 degrees.

The use of fast reactors operated in a closed fuel cycle could increase uranium resource efficiency. Large-scale deployment of fast reactors would essentially decouple nuclear energy from uranium resource availability. This would further enhance the sustainability of nuclear energy.

Nuclear technologies do not merely provide energy - they are improving peoples' lives in many other ways and are supporting sustainable development.

Medical applications of nuclear technology are used all over the world. Every year, about 30 million people benefit from a diagnostic procedure or treatment by nuclear medicine and the numbers are steadily increasing.

These medical applications save lives. They are used in the fight against cancer, and also in cardiology, neurology and paediatrics.

Radioisotopes and radiation used in food and agriculture are helping the fight against world hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that in 2014 to 2016, about 795 million people (one in nine) were suffering from chronic undernourishment. About 25-30% of food harvested is lost as a result of spoilage before it can be consumed.

Food irradiation exposes foodstuffs to gamma rays that kill bacteria that can cause food-borne disease, thus increasing their shelf-life.

Radiation is also used for agricultural pest control via the Sterile Insect Technique, which reduces the use of pesticides, thus benefiting public health and the environment.

In addition to agricultural pest control, Sterile Insect Technique is used to fight against disease-carrying insects. For example, during the recent outbreak of the deadly Zika virus in regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, this technique was used to limit the growth in population of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Adequate potable water is essential for life. Isotope hydrology techniques help tracing and measurement of the extent of underground water resources to improve the management and conservation of existing supplies of water, and in the identification of new sources.

A new nuclear power station not only generates reliable low-carbon electricity but also provides many wider social and economic benefits, both during its development, construction and subsequent 60-year operational phase.

For example the UK's Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant project will:

Create Jobs - the project is expected to create 25,000 employment opportunities during construction, and will support around 900 more during operation.

Build skills - there will be 1000 apprenticeships and investment of around 15 million pounds into education, skills and employment initiatives.

Drive local and regional economic development - The project will generate 4 billion pounds of investment into the regional economy.

Support national industrial development and the supply chain - It is expected that UK companies will deliver about 64% of the 19.6 billion pounds of inward investment in Hinkley Point C.

World Nuclear Association is supporting and cooperating with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) on sustainable energy to improve access to affordable and clean energy for all and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint of the energy sector.

This fits in well with UNECE's approach in promoting international policy dialogue and cooperation among governments, energy industries and other stakeholders.

UNECE works across a number of areas, such as energy efficiency, and a wide range of clean energy sources, including nuclear fuel. It brings together the different stakeholders and seeks a holistic solution to the energy challenge.

For example, we have provided input to UNECE flagship programme The Pathways to Sustainable Energy.

We are a member of UNECE's expert group on resource management, which contributed to the United Nations Resource Management System, to provide a framework for sustainable development of global natural resources. Part of this important collaboration, was the production of the recent report - Redesigning the Uranium Resource Pathway.

Also, we are undertaking a collaborative project with UNECE, The International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency on The Role of Nuclear Energy in Sustainable development: Entry Pathways.

This report is to support policy makers in nuclear newcomer countries in defining appropriate pathways for the introduction of nuclear energy to support sustainable development.

Another example of collaboration in international clean energy innovation is the new Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy (NICE) initiative under the Clean Energy Ministerial that was launched in 2018.

This initiative seeks to foster dialogue on the role that nuclear energy can play in clean energy systems of the future.

The NICE Future initiative seeks to address nuclear energy holistically within the context of broader clean energy systems. Its goal is to bring nuclear energy into the broader cross-sector discussion on clean energy at the ministerial level.

It envisions an energy future not of either nuclear or renewables, but of nuclear and renewables.

Its Flexible Nuclear Campaign: Nuclear-Renewable Integration for Advanced Clean Energy Systems focuses governments, research institutes, non-government organisations, and industry together on flexible, integrated systems that use both nuclear and renewable energy.

In order for nuclear power to fully play its part in the fight against climate change, World Nuclear Association created the Harmony Programme.

This aims for a 25% share for nuclear energy in global electricity in 2050 by adding about 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity.

The Harmony Programme is a cooperative effort by the whole nuclear power community. It is a framework for action.

There is a growing chorus of voices recognising that nuclear energy has an important role in decarbonizing electricity supply.

Current nuclear reactor designs are mature and proven technologies that have been producing electricity for more than 40 years.

And with further innovation, and as new technologies come to fruition, the locations and market opportunities will continue to grow. Nuclear energy will be used in off-grid applications, to decarbonise heat, and to desalinate water - providing the fast-track to a sustainable and clean energy system."