The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has welcomed the nuclear industry into its debate on the policy responses required to address climate change and sustainable development. Today, UNECE's Expert Group on Resource Management (EGRM) held a session titled The role of nuclear energy resources in sustainable development as part of UNECE Energy Week 2020.King Lee and Agneta Rising during the UNECE session today
The session was chaired by King Lee, who leads World Nuclear Association's Harmony Programme, which is the nuclear industry's vision for the future of electricity. The Harmony goal is for nuclear energy to supply 25% of global electricity with 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050.
Lee has been elected as chair of the UNECE Nuclear Fuel Working Group; the new leadership reflects the increasing collaboration between UNECE and World Nuclear Association to facilitate engagement on the role of nuclear energy to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
During the EGRM session today, Lee presented the development of a new UNECE report, The Role of Nuclear Energy in Sustainable Development: Entry Pathways, which he said aims to inform "sound policy formulation" for countries considering nuclear energy programmes and the utilisation of uranium resources, and to help them define "locally relevant pathways" to support sustainable development. The report gives attention both to newcomer countries and the deployment of small modular reactors, as well as to existing large-scale nuclear reactor technologies.
The report was developed under the guidance of UNECE’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group with support from World Nuclear Association, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. It has been "a very successful collaborative effort by UNECE, with these other international organisations", Lee said.
"The report explores nuclear technology contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals where it plays a key role in decarbonising the energy sector, but it can also support the attainment of all other Sustainable Development Goals - including supporting the elimination of poverty, zero hunger, clean water, affordable energy, economic growth and industry innovation,” Lee said." It highlights SDG 7 energy as 'central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today'. Energy access supports all of the SDGs and is a key pillar of the UN's sustainable development agenda."
Nuclear power currently provides 10% of global electricity supply, from 450 reactor units in operation in 30 countries. In the advanced economies "as a group", nuclear power is the largest low-carbon source of electricity, providing 40% of all clean energy production in 2018.
A country's adoption of nuclear energy is "a major undertaking" that requires significant policy support and investment into building institutions, human resources, science and physical infrastructure as well as extensive cooperation with international partners, Lee said.
The report draws on the internationally recognised process for nuclear energy programme development - the IAEA's Milestones Approach - and highlights five nuclear development considerations that are readily aligned with sustainable development: energy system evaluation and planning; socioeconomic development factors; environmental factors; regulatory and legal factors; and economics and project financing.
It recognises that nuclear energy supports the realisation of a number of national policy goals, Lee said, including: affordable and clean energy provision; mitigating climate change; enhancing energy resilience; and development of industry and infrastructure.A tipping point
Scott Foster, director of UNECE's Sustainable Energy Division, said the climate emergency was now at "10 past midnight" and that a technology neutral approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions was vital.
"The planet has reached a tipping point, and the emergency lights are flashing," he said. "I used to say warning lights, but I want to insist that we are in an emergency. The current pandemic has taken its toll - we have now passed the grim milestone of one million deaths. But there are also forest fires, floods and droughts. The human, environmental, social and economic prices we are paying are unprecedented. We could have limited the impacts had we taken earlier warnings more seriously."
Planetary temperatures, which are already at 1°C above pre-industrial levels, are "at the root of these disasters".
"There is no doubt, and there should be no debate. The UN has announced a Decade of Action from 2020 to 2030 to realise the Sustainable Development Goals, but what we are doing is not working. Current modes of thinking and working will not get us there. Energy is at the heart of sustainable development. It cannot be taken in isolation but is essential for the quality of life," he said.
"We need to deploy every technology and to pursue every approach to reverse the trend. We must recognise that every country has its endowment of natural resources and its own cultural, legislative and regulatory heritage, and each country will pursue its pathway to the 2030 Agenda. What is clear, based on our work at UNECE, is that we will not achieve our objectives collectively if nuclear energy is excluded."
UNECE has "an integrated and holistic" energy programme, he stressed, and its energy standards are deployed globally. "Please note that as an organisation, we are agnostic on energy policy and energy technology out of respect for the unique pathways of countries. The portfolio of available options clearly includes nuclear energy," he said.A better tomorrow
Agneta Rising, World Nuclear Association director general, said nuclear energy was the unsung hero in the climate debate, having been a source of low-carbon and sustainable electricity for decades already. "You just haven’t noticed," she said.
Referring to the middle-of-the-road scenario of the IPCC 1.5 C Report, Rising said nuclear energy needs to grow six-fold by 2050 and achieve 25% of electricity generation just to keep the global temperature rise "bearable". Projections for nuclear power by the International Energy Agency and the IAEA, based on current policy trends, show however that the growth of nuclear energy will not be sufficient to meet this need, she added.
"If the world is to address climate change while meeting sustainable development ambitions then we need reliable low-carbon nuclear generation to start growing fast!" she said. "Overall the COVID crisis has highlighted a key feature of nuclear energy that rarely gets attention - its inherent flexibility and resilience."
The OECD defines resilience as 'the capacity to withstand and bounce back from major disruptions. Resilient systems are planned to prevent, avoid, withstand and absorb any and all threats, and to recover and adapt in the aftermath of disruption', she noted.
"Resiliency and security of electricity requires long-term planning at the national and regional levels. It is ensured through a mix of smooth uninterrupted operations of the grid and supporting infrastructure, by power plants with high availability, and when there is no spike in costs," she said.
Policymakers must put nuclear front and centre of their post-pandemic economic recovery plans, she said.
"As a result of the COVID crisis, governments need to act to get people back to work as soon as possible. At the same time we are in a slowly worsening climate emergency which requires a fundamental transition of the energy sector. Lastly, economic stagnation has led to low interest rates making now a golden time to invest in long-term capital intensive infrastructure," she said.
Rising called on governments to:Consider nuclear and its socio-economic, environmental and public health benefits in any energy transition plan, and enact policies to ensure the realisation of the many benefits of nuclear energy; Accelerate the implementation of the 108 reactors that are already planned by governments, and ensure the long-time operation of the 290 reactors that have been operational for 30+ years; Unlock finance by providing the appropriate frameworks that will drive investment and provide better value for consumers; and Encourage the multilateral banks to reconsider nuclear and adopt a technology neutral approach for low-carbon solutions, especially in developing countries. She said: "There is a window of opportunity here to make these things work together. We can build back stronger and cleaner if governments take the necessary steps. So while it has been a challenging year, I see a pathway to a better tomorrow."
Researched and written by World Nuclear News