The final quarter of 2018 saw harsh reality begin to confront the lofty goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord and the more modest commitments of the countries which signed it. Three years on, prospects for reaching these goals and honouring these commitments are already starting to fade.
In October, the IPCC warned that unless substantial cuts in CO2 emissions are made before 2030, the rise in global average surface temperature will exceed 1.5°C. According to present trends, the world will be more than 3°C hotter by the end of this century than it was before the Industrial Revolution – a change which will have grave consequences for humanity.
In November, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report confirmed that, after a three-year plateau from 2014 to 2016, global emissions have resumed their upward trend. The projected 2018 year on year increase is 2.7%, far above than the 2017 rise of 1.6%.
In December, despite loud warning bells ringing in their ears, diehard champions of fossil fuels, led by the US and Saudi Arabia, fought to water down the COP24’s response of COP24 to the IPCC report in coal-dependent Poland.
Clarity on nuclear energy
Against this background, it is more urgent than ever to recognise nuclear energy as an essential part of the world’s response to climate change. Any lingering doubts should be removed by the example of Germany, whose 2011 decision to phase out nuclear has jeopardised its energy security, wrecked its chances of reaching its 2020 emissions reduction targets and damaged air quality in its cities.
The case for nuclear power is also being strengthened by the industry’s progress. The transition to Gen 3+ reactors has been achieved with the first AP1000 and EPR models becoming operational in China, after the Russian VVER-1200 was completed in 2016-17.
Unfortunately, a lack of policy clarity in many parts of the world is holding back investment in new nuclear capacity. The EU’s ambitious vision of becoming climate neutral by 2050 – a goal which requires net zero emissions – is being implemented by a European Commission that continues to harbour the illusion it can be reached solely by developing intermittent renewables. The Commission often displays a bias against nuclear which can amount to downright hostility.
Even in China, where the rapid expansion of nuclear capacity used to be seen as a key part of government efforts to cut dependence on coal, the pace of new construction may be starting to falter in the face of misplaced public anxiety about safety and policymakers’ concerns over rising costs. The tenfold growth in Chinese nuclear capacity envisaged before the Fukushima accident no longer seems attainable.
In nearby Taiwan, a 60% majority result in favour of keeping nuclear power in last month’s referendum could be taken as another sign that public support for nuclear energy is strongest among those who have the most direct experience and knowledge of it. Even this decisive outcome, however, was insufficient to persuade the government to abandon its aim of a nuclear-free Taiwan.
Harmonising clean energy
The events of 2018 and the conflicting undercurrents in the energy industry serve as warnings that, if nuclear is to fulfil the role envisaged in the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Harmony programme, policy will have to change.
The rapid falls in the cost of solar energy, and to a lesser extent wind power, are very welcome. Reduced costs, however, do not change the limits of relying on intermittent renewable power sources for any modern economy which depends on an uninterrupted supply of electricity.
Similarly the true costs of maintaining the back-up capacity which solar and wind require, and of the subsidies payable to renewable operators at times of surplus electricity production and low wholesale prices, must be used in all cost comparisons with nuclear energy.
A decisive shift in policy is needed before the COP26 at the end of 2020. By then, the extent to which most 2020 targets have been missed will be starkly apparent. It can’t be assumed that low cost, long-term, large-scale electricity storage will soon be available, nor that affordable carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) is about to come on-stream.
Concern about climate change and about carbon emissions is rising quickly, intensified by worries about air quality. The pressure to accelerate the phase-out of coal, which Bloomberg New Energy Finance now forecasts will provide only 11% of electricity in 2050, will grow.
The New Nuclear Watch Institute’s recent report “The False Economy of Abandoning Nuclear Power” exposed the myth that gas can be the bridge fuel which facilitates the transition away from coal to a renewables-dominated, zero-carbon electricity generation future.
In particular, the report shows that relying entirely on gas instead of maintaining a significant nuclear element will raise electricity prices and cause an unacceptably large increase in emissions.
The contrast between the gradual abandonment of nuclear by mature western countries, and the more positive attitude in faster growing economies elsewhere, is becoming more marked. Even fossil fuel-rich nations in the Middle East accept the need to diversify their energy sources by developing nuclear capacity.
Reshaping global competition
Several vendors are actively exploiting the opportunities which these trends offer. Russia’s Rosatom is the leader, with an order book of $134 billion and contracts to build 22 reactors in 9 countries. That success is based not only on the quality of the technology, but also on the company’s ability to tailor financial packages to potential customers.
The main competition in this field will probably come from China, whose experience of developing reactors overseas is limited at the moment but is positioned to grow. Prospects for Korean firms, despite their success in the United Arab Emirates, are hampered by the lack of enthusiasm for nuclear shown by the new government elected in 2017.
The prospect for nuclear energy is therefore a mixture of challenge and opportunity. As Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) said at the COP24: “We need a secure and sustainable energy supply, and I believe nuclear has an important role to play.”