There is no debate on the role of nuclear power in mitigating climate change in many countries across Europe and the OECD. It is categorically ignored. Yet evidence implies that we need more nuclear in the mix.
The current best evidence shows that we will not be able to cut emissions fast enough with only renewable energy and efficiency improvements. We might not be able to cut them fast enough even with nuclear in the mix, but at least there would be a fighting chance.
Regarding this fact, it is very strange that nuclear power has been systematically ignored in public climate policy debate for decades. The COP21 climate negotiations in Paris was the first time in the 25-year history of climate negotiations that nuclear was included and represented somehow. COP22 all but ignored nuclear power. Yet nuclear is historically by far the fastest tool we have when it comes to decarbonizing energy production.
A fact-based and pragmatic debate needs to be started on the role of nuclear in achieving a deep decarbonization of our societies by 2050. Not just electricity, but the whole energy sector, including space heating and hot water, industrial process heat and transportation. The fact that nuclear energy produces almost half of the low carbon energy in Europe is simply ignored at almost every level. This might sound like a cliché, but my 10-year old kid can see the ridiculousness of the situation.
Debate needs to happen
If we don’t want to simply drift silently into climate failure, we need to have a factual discussion on this. To start this debate, at least in The Netherlands, the Nuclear Elephant -symposium was organized in Amsterdam in early March, 2017. I attended as one of the speakers.
The energy mix of Netherlands is mainly – over 90 % – based on burning fossil fuels. Electricity is mainly generated by burning natural gas and coal, with smaller shares on renewables and nuclear. Their emissions are roughly 8.8 tons CO2 per capita per year. Total emissions are now roughly the same they were 20 years ago.
The most prominent climate action in The Netherlands is the plan to build 15 gigawatts of offshore wind power in the coming years. While that is a substantial amount and will certainly lead to less burning of fossil fuels to make electricity, it is only a start. It will also lead to a lock-in where the remainder of the electricity is provided with flexible natural gas, as the intermittent wind power can only provide some part of electricity. At the same time, this subsidized production will likely lead to baseload providers, such as nuclear power, to be less competitive. The problem is, adding even a substantial amount of wind will only lead to partial decarbonization – while it breaks the market for other solutions that are needed in moving forward.
And there is little talk about what to do after that, and even less talk on what to do beyond the electricity sector, where two thirds of Netherland’s emissions are generated (industry, manufacturing, transportation, heating).
The Nuclear Elephant Symposium
There was an interesting cast of speakers invited. Stephen Tindale, former anti-nuclear activist and executive director of Greenpeace UK, started by presenting the case that we need everything we have for the climate challenge. Wind, solar, hydro, nuclear and advanced nuclear and even some uses for biomass. Nuclear, biomass and hydro are the only tools that can provide reliable power that our society needs. Of those, only nuclear does not have severe limitations in adding more capacity.
The second speaker was Pier Stapersma, a senior researcher at The Clingendael International Energy Programme (CIEP). While his analysis was sound, the conclusion was somewhat stark. To put it bluntly, with current market policies there is no chance we can decarbonize even electricity production, with or without nuclear, let alone the whole energy sector. The energy market, and what it values, needs to change drastically.
Another speaker was Kirsty Gogan from Energy4Humanity with her personal tale on how she became an advocate for evidence based energy policy. E4H is an NGO that is focused on bringing evidence-based energy policy to the table while recognizing the enormous need for developing countries to increase their energy use and the living standards of their people. Anouk ter Brugge spoke about her experiences in representing (almost alone) nuclear energy in COP22 climate negotiations under the Nuclear4Climate initiative, and how nuclear is still being ignored as a climate solution even at such high level. Their stand at COP22 even got vandalized by anti-nuclear activists.
Me and Janne Korhonen, my co-author of our book Climate Gamble, gave the final presentation, asking the audience for their opinions on some energy and nuclear related questions/myths that are often circulated in public debate but often have little basis on reality. Some of the presentations can be downloaded here.
Politics make nuclear politically problematic
Right now, new nuclear in The Netherlands is not realistic, since it is not on the political agenda. The same holds for many OECD countries, especially in Europe. Nobody talks about it, and if nobody talks about it, we will eventually lose one of our most powerful tools in mitigating climate change. This will likely lead to an open-ended licence to keep on burning. It is obvious that we need to start talking more about nuclear, and take back the initiative from the anti-nuclear establishment.
That establishment is steering humanity on a dangerous road where evidence is disregarded and dogma rules the day. People deserve to know what the benefits and possibilities of nuclear are compared with other options. The nuclear industry certainly needs to go out there and participate in the discussion in a whole new way.
Civil society needs to participate as well. Organizations like Energy4Humanity and other pro-evidence environmental groups, often hailing themselves as Ecomodernists, need to do a lot more, and they need everyone’s help to do it. The established anti-nuclear organisations have global budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They are using those resources to deny us our most efficient tool to mitigate climate change.
It is encouraging that there are people able and willing to discuss the Nuclear Elephant in the room. Now we need to keep the momentum, take the initiative. The facts and the evidence is on our side. Physics is on our side. When we get the people on the side of rational policy, the politicians will follow.
The Nuclear Elephant – Symposium materials and photos
This artivle was first published in Fennonen.