Nuclear Energy - The Gordian Knot of Climate Change

Nuclear Energy - The Gordian Knot of Climate Change

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Yanko Yanev

Energy is essential to how we can power the economy and manage the environment. Not without consent, energy rests at the core of geopolitics – an issue of both wealth and power, as it can be both a source of conflict and a basis for international cooperation. Energy is the key to development and political stability. Just to mention, currently, there are still almost a billion people worldwide who don’t have access to electricity. That is unacceptable both in political, economic and security terms. As we fight with a pandemic virus and limit activity and travel, we are still faced with a global threat of climate change and this will continue. That the planet's climate is changing much faster than what has been observed for at least the last 100 years is a scientific fact. Why this happens is another question that requires detailed analysis of a huge number of climate parameters. The opinion of the vast majority of climatologists and scientists from various fields of science is unequivocal; our activity and, above all, the huge use of fossil fuels, which return carbon to the atmosphere, are the main cause of climate change. Will there be a climate apocalypse or not is not simple to predict. The changes will depend on how we will treat the transformation of the energy system, transport and a number of other areas that require high energy consumption. Most important of all is what energy source we will use. Will we continue with fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas or will we transform the energy system into a low-carbon one, using all kinds of renewable sources and nuclear technology? If we want to get a realistic picture of the future energy system, a return to basics is necessary. An energy system has three fundamental parameters, and they drive its development and implementation. Energy has to be available, which means to be proven science and technology with the existing industrial base for its development and application. Second it has to be accessible in terms of capability and requirements for its deployment. Lastly but not at the least, it has to be affordable. Affordability for some is a matter of policy and a simple business assessment for others. If we add today’s world politics, energy choices are expected also to promote new technologies and efficient use of energy, to reduce pollution, to diversify the global energy supply, to create jobs, and to address the threat of climate change. Can Nuclear Power play a role in achieving each of these objectives? My answer is Yes and No. Nuclear power is a mature energy source as it has been developed for the last 60 years in the leading industrial countries both as science and industrial technology. It can be well accessed but requires a long-term commitment in meeting well established international requirements for safety and non-proliferation. Nuclear power affordability is well taken in the long-term context of its life expectancy of more than 80 years, thus providing one of the cheapest low-carbon sources of electricity (see recent NEA report). For today’s energy entrepreneurs, nuclear power is expensive and unattractive. Current governments, at least in Europe and North America, try to stay away from financing nuclear power, something they have easily done in the seventies, when the majority of current nuclear reactors were built. Here comes the important question: who can do it? Those who have the know-how and can or those who still don’t know but dramatically need energy to develop? The answer to this question can provide a realistic estimate of the role of nuclear power in the future energy system. The countries which need nuclear technology for maintaining their strategic objectives like USA, Russia, France, UK, China and India are the countries which possess the entire nuclear fuel cycle and currently operate the majority of the nuclear power fleet of the world. Japan and the Republic of Korea are to be added as the two leading non-nuclear weapon countries with high nuclear energy utilization. All new development in science and technology belongs to these countries. If a major development of nuclear power of the scale to make a significant contribution to decarbonization of the energy system (MIT assessment for 1000 reactors) should be done, then it should be done by these countries. A major deployment of nuclear power (hundreds of reactors) in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America is more in the area of optimistic plans of governmental officials and nuclear activists. The reason being that none of the above critical parameters of accessibility, availability and affordability can be met, at least, in the next 20 – 30 years in these countries. Further, there is a need to introduce nuclear knowledge and competence at an acceptable level and build the necessary infrastructure for a sustainable and safe nuclear power program there. Despite the desire to move away from fossil fuels, oil and especially gas will remain dominant in the global energy mix – the energy world will continue to be consumed by the need to find gas to meet growing global demand. Politics and security will be intimately interwoven in this quest. At the same time, climate and security pressures are real and, over time, technology and policy will enable the world to move away from fossil fuels to more sustainable and clean energy sources. And here comes the politics. Different countries, depending on the available resources or participation in the global energy business, determine their energy policy mostly in their own interest. This hinders a common solution and seems to determine the way in which the problem of decarbonization will develop. Nuclear energy can play a significant role to support other renewable energy sources but it has to be addressed globally. The need for a global agreement on the use of nuclear energy is becoming obvious. We cannot agree on safety levels defined by national borders. As has been the case throughout the course of history, such a major shift in the global energy mix will come with major political and security changes. The need to change the current international nuclear regime is becoming obvious and it is needed if nuclear energy will be a key supporter of decarbonization. To solve a whole lot of interconnected issues of energy needs, climate protection and politics, the Gordian knot has to be untied. In previous times it was President Eisenhower who showed the way forward. May be now we need a new Alexander the Great?

(Prof. Yanko Yanev is the CEO of the Nuclear Knowledge Management Institute (NKMI) in Vienna and Member of the Board of Directors of Vienna Nuclear Competence Center (VINCC).
Email : y.yanev@nuclear-km.org)