Early environmental movements regarded nuclear power as villain number one. Disasters a quarter of a century apart at Chernobyl and Fukushima aroused the fears of successive generations. Many of today’s climate campaigners remain understandably hostile to nuclear power. Still as leaders at COP26 struggling to agree about carbon reductions that will come close to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C, it becomes clear that nuclear power generation should be part of the panoply of solutions, albeit on a transitional basis.
There is little doubt that renewable sources such as wind and solar power – which have made great strides – should be the mainstay of future electricity generation. The disadvantage remains them intermittent nature, and the lack of large-scale means of storing electricity. Storage technology seems unlikely to provide a big enough solution, fast enough. Nuclear power is the only carbon-free source that can supply power 24 hours a day, on demand, almost anywhere.
Moreover, the world does not just need to replace fossil fuel resources, which still generate almost two-thirds of world power. Electric power also needs to be dramatically expanded to replace the oil, coal and gas burned by vehicles, homes and industries. At the same time, many of the nuclear power plants that supply 10 percent of the world’s electricity are aging.
For renewable energy to take all the pressure will be a daunting challenge. Consider a scenario where the sales of internal combustion engine cars would end by 2035 and global electricity would be decarbonized by 2040. The International Energy Agency proposes that the world will have to step up the construction of solar and wind power plants so that by 2030 it will add four times more. much capacity annually as in the record year of 2020.
Some sectors, less suitable for electrification, will need alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, or heat sources. Nuclear power is potentially good for producing both.
The arguments against nuclear power are powerful and resonant. It is expensive and complex to build; projects that regularly exceed costs and costs. It produces deadly waste. When things go wrong, the consequences can be devastating. The nuclear industry and its proponents tend to dismiss such concerns too kindly.
Yet the few tragic accidents were caused by a combination of poor training, design flaws, and inadequate understanding of risks. Many scientists and academics agree modern designs, safety features and training are better. Technology has also advanced waste storage. Finland sets a welcome standard for dealing with high level nuclear waste with the construction of a deep underground site that world’s first repository for spent nuclear fuel.
Co-investment by the state or the use of, for example, regulated asset base models can reduce financing costs to the point where nuclear power is competitive over its lifetime with other sources. Small modular reactors – studied by the UK, Estonia, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and others – offers the prospect of being built cheaper and faster, but producing abundant power. Communities may refuse to have such plants in their backyard. But they could possibly be built on sites from existing reactors, or – as the US investigates – be installed in previously coal-fired plants, using existing transmission infrastructure.
Governments, regulators and the industry are facing an uphill battle to gain confidence in nuclear power. Yet climate disaster prevention is the defining challenge of this century. All ways to achieve this have disadvantages, risks and compromises. Nuclear power has, perhaps, more than most. But it’s not so great to prevent it from playing a role.
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