Decarbonisation opportunity15 January 2020
Europe’s policymakers and nuclear industry are missing a unique opportunity to tackle the climate emergency. Andrew Fawthrop reports
FORMER BRITISH POLITICIAN AND CHIEF executive officer (CEO) of the New Nuclear Watch Institute (NNWI) Tim Yeo says there is an unequivocal case for nuclear energy to play a prominent role in decarbonising the power sector — but western economies currently lag far behind counterparts in China, India and Russia in their strategies.
Speaking to industry delegates in London on 6 November, think-tank boss Yeo advocated the creation of a European Green New Deal to address climate change and achieve targets set out by the Paris Agreement.
He said: “Climate change is going to become the main policy driver for governments and investment decisions within our lifetime — there’s a new urgency in the debate.
“It’s now clear that the decarbonisation of the power sector must accelerate very rapidly if we’re going to reach net zero in 2050.
“This is a very big opportunity for the nuclear industry and we’ve got to seize the moment.
“But in the West today, the nuclear industry is not grasping this unique opportunity.”
Nuclear power development in Europe and the USA lags behind other major economies (see map).
Although nuclear energy has the potential to provide large quantities of renewable and consistent energy supply to the global mix, concerns around cost, safety and regulation have been stumbling blocks to investment and policy planning in recent times.
There are currently 53 new reactors under construction worldwide — promising 54GW of low-carbon energy capacity — but few are in the West.
China is the most prolific in terms of new nuclear projects, with 10 new plants underway, while India has seven and Russia five.
Conversely, just 2GW of new capacity is being developed in the USA, and 5GW in the European Union.
Additionally, 90% of existing nuclear infrastructure in the US is more than 30 years old, while 75% of Europe’s plants are equally aged.
Yeo believes this is an unacceptable situation if Western economies are serious about addressing the “existential threat” of climate change through the reduction of carbon emissions.
He said: “We can’t sit around waiting for an economic form of carbon capture and storage to become viable 10 or 15 years from now.
“We can’t wait for the large-scale, long-term, flexible and affordable electricity storage, whose availability is necessary for any country planning to rely mainly on variable renewable energy.
“Historically, only two countries have ever cut carbon emissions as fast as every single country must start doing in the next 10 years — France and Sweden. And they did it by a massive investment in nuclear energy.”
In light of these concerns, Yeo revealed the NNWI’s vision for a European Green New Deal — a roadmap he believes policymakers need to adopt for Europe, a region that currently relies on nuclear to meet 20% of its electricity demand, to become an industry leader in the West.
The foundational New Deal implemented by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s was “a series of emergency measures responding to a crisis”, said Yeo, “and that is exactly what the world needs now in response to climate change”.
“It must be a specific programme of practical measures for action, capable of immediate implementation — not another set of worthy but vague principles and aspirations.
“We’ve got enough vision statements, we need concrete policies,” Yeo added.
Central to this framework is the role of nuclear power in contributing to a low-carbon global energy mix — something he said has been ignored by European lawmakers, despite industry support for the sector.
“It is simply unwise and wrong for the European Commission’s technical commission group to discriminate against nuclear energy, by excluding it from the taxonomy of sustainable investments which enjoy favoured access to funds,” he added.
“Their decision ignores the advice of the IPCC, IEA, OECD, FTI and many others — all of which recognise the essential role of nuclear.
“Any form of low-carbon energy which helps to prevent dangerous and irreversible climate change should be supported,” Yeo concluded.
While critics of nuclear power argue that it is not a cost-effective way to pursue a cleaner energy system — EDF’s Flamanville 3 EPR construction project in northern France was last month lambasted for running more than $9bn over budget — Yeo was resolute in his view that the urgency of climate change demands taking some risks in investment.
“Costs are important and should not be ignored,” Yeo said. “But what is even more important is cutting emissions in time. It’s no good developing cheap forms of low-carbon energy to kick-in in 2050, when we’ve already reached the maximum safe level of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.
“Delaying investment in low-carbon capacity is potentially even more damaging than paying high prices for pioneering nuclear plants.”
Lessons from the East
Alan Raymant, chief executive for the UK’s Bradwell B project told delegates that “nuclear is losing the battle on cost, certainly in the public imagination, and we’ve got to address that.”
Bradwell B is currently in the early design and development stage, spearheaded by a partnership between Chinese energy firm CGN and France’s EDF.
It is intended to be the third collaboration between the two firms in the UK, after the construction of Hinkley Point C in Somerset and Sizewell C Suffolk.
The idea behind building multiple projects in series is to achieve significant cost reductions through replication – but Raymant is aware that to “win the hearts of the public”, proving that nuclear plants can be developed cost-effectively will be a crucial first step.
Raymant’s role on the Bradwell B project with CGN has given a glimpse of how China’s nuclear sector has approached the task of building new infrastructure, and he believes there is much to be learned.
He says: “The key experience I would draw from China is in setting out to deliver a programme of nuclear plants over a sustained period of time.
“This has enabled them to build their expertise, recycle that into subsequent projects, build it into the supply chain and become a lot more self-sufficient than at the start of the programme.
“They have that long-term perspective... and are able to plan on that basis – that’s not the way it works in the UK, where things are done on an individual basis and policy is not as stable as we’d like it to be.”
Main Image: Few of the nuclear reactors under construction are in the west (Data: IAEA/PRIS)
Photos courtesy New Nuclear Watch Institute