Hope for a brighter future as prospects for nuclear improve

Dr Ben Heard for Bright New World

June 2018

This article was originally published for Finnish media. I have made minor amendments and updates to this version. 

As the world marches toward another Conference of Parties to plan action on climate change, it’s easy to become cynical.

Those conferences are now nearly 30 years old. With the exception of a single aberrant year, annual greenhouse gas emissions have only risen, driving up atmospheric concentration of CO2. Absolute growth in fossil energy has massively exceeded absolute growth in clean energy.

While renewable technologies, particularly wind and solar, have grown at break-neck speed recently, this has also been a period of contraction for the world’s second largest source of clean energy – nuclear fission. As a result, the percentage contribution from coal remains unchanged from twenty years ago.

However there might now be an cause for optimism. After attending three global conferences in three countries (Germany, Japan and Russia), I detect signs that growth in nuclear might resume with the vigour it needs to finally get the world on a credible clean energy trajectory.

 Just a thirty minute drive from the biggest climate change meeting in the world was the biggest lignite pit I have ever seen. Bonn, Germany.

Just a thirty minute drive from the biggest climate change meeting in the world was the biggest lignite pit I have ever seen. Bonn, Germany.

The German experiment in prioritising renewable energy over nuclear energy has proven the example to be rejected. Costing in excess of 250 billion Euro in subsidy per year for virtually no change in greenhouse gas emissions, the Energiewende prompted French President Macron to firmly reject a path of closure for the French nuclear sector. Germany’s other big neighbour, Poland, has used their vantage point on the Energiewende to reject it. Poland instead plans a new nuclear build to help it move from near-total dependence on coal. Germany is now committed to missing its emissions reduction target in 2020 by eight percent.

 Proud to represent Adelaide, South Australia, as the latest visitor to Fukushima Daiichi.

Proud to represent Adelaide, South Australia, as the latest visitor to Fukushima Daiichi.

While in Japan, I visited the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where an accident in 2011 triggered a global crisis for nuclear energy. What I found on this, my second visit, surprised and impressed me. The Japanese industry was on a positive footing. They were communicating more openly that I had ever seen. The site is well-managed, open to visitors, and visitation is skyrocketing. Towns are reopening closer and closer to the site. Japan has reopened the ninth reactor since the 2011 accident. This restart is vital. Japan’s currently idle nuclear fleet could replace two-thirds of its coal fired electricity generation, saving 200 Mt CO2-e per year.

China has announced construction of eight new units. Nuclear build is underway in Turkey and the United Kingdom, and nearing completion in the UAE. Major reinvestment is occurring in Canada and Hungary. During this past week at the tenth AtomExpo in Russia I met delegates from Zambia, Ghana, Kenya and the Phillipines. A consistent theme emerged. While the capacity building will take time, the clean energy needs of developing nations are so great that they are seriously planning for nuclear energy. 

While in Russia I had the pleasure of hosting the premier of the new National Geographic film series Wild Edens. These beautiful films, shot in ultra high-definition, will highlight the world’s remaining wilderness and raise awareness of their vulnerability to climate change. The film series is brought to us by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear corporation. That represents a material shift in messaging for the global nuclear industry. After years, even decades of acting apologetically to an environmental movement that despises it, this new footing rightly asserts nuclear technology as an essential part of resolving climate change and preserving nature. 

That reality is flowing back to one of the toughest environments for nuclear right now: the United States. Journalists and news outlets who have traditionally been no friend to the nuclear sector are doing the very basic maths on emissions. They are raising calls to maintain the existing nuclear sector in the face of distorted markets and very low prices for fossil gas.

Then, of course, there is Finland. With both the Olkiluoto and Hainikivi projects underway, Finland is one of the best performing nations in Western Europe in terms of moving a power system from dirty towards clean. Finland has been the example to the world in consent-based processes for siting nuclear waste repositories. Even more excitingly, the progressive attitude on display from the Helsinki City Council means Finland is poised to lead in exploring the use of smaller, hotter nuclear plants to provide that vital source of non-electrical clean energy: residential and industrial heat. With the rest of the world still picking the low-hanging fruit of clean electricity, Finland might forge an important path we will all soon need to follow. Because no one, anywhere, has another credible answer for all that heat aside from burning carbon - either from trees or from fossil fuels.

I make it my job to be optimistic about the future. The evidence for a change is early and lean. But it’s there. If this growth in nuclear can accelerate alongside the global growth in renewables, then finally, after nearly three decades, we might begin to see a trend in greenhouse emissions that we can be proud to show to our children.

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