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Policymakers who ignore nuclear energy are not serious about meeting climate goals, delegates said at an Atlantic Council webinar last week. The first in the Raising Ambitions series, the event highlighted the attributes of this clean source of electricity and heat ahead of the Leaders’ Climate Summit, which the US Administration is hosting on 22-23 April.

Jennifer Gordon, managing editor and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, moderated the webinar's panel discussion, which included Sama Bilbao y Léon, director general of World Nuclear Association; William Magwood, director general of the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA); John Wagner, director of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL); and Arun Khuttan, the Next Gen Nuclear Industry Council's project lead for COP26.


Gordon noted that the White House describes the Leaders’ Climate Summit as a key milestone on the road to the United Nations' next Conference of the Parties that will take place in Glasgow this November. She asked each of the webinar's panellists what they hoped to see from the summit.

"The most important signal is a strong dose of reality," Magwood said. "In the climate discussion, there's an awful lot of rhetoric, handshaking and table pounding, but there's not always a lot of hard reality."

For example, the suggestion that an effective response to the climate emergency entails making sacrifices, such as not eating meat, driving cars and travelling by aeroplane, is "a loser" of an argument, he said. 

"People are not going to give up civilisation to save the planet. That means we have to be able to give them a scenario where there is plentiful, reliable, inexpensive electric energy that will propel economic prosperity, growth around the world, and not just for those of us that already have it, but also for the billion people out there who want to have it," he said. "To take nuclear out of that conversation as the leaders sit around the table shows simply, in my view, a lack of seriousness about the issue."

Bilbao y Léon said focusing on changes to the way of life enjoyed in industrialised nations also shows a lack of respect for the ambitions of the developing world.

"It's nice for us in OECD economies to say we can sacrifice our quality of life to some extent to transition to clean energy systems, but in less developed countries there are no luxuries to give up," she said.

Policymakers should therefore prioritise substance over style.

"I have heard a lot of metrics that tell me what kinds of technology are going to be installed here and there, what percentage of this, what percentage of that, but what we really need to do is look into the metrics of achievement."

This means being technology neutral when framing climate policies.

"Different countries will have different ways to reach achievements that are focused on decarbonisation, and definitely we need a reality-check. If you look at the percentage of low-carbon electricity that we have today, it's exactly the same as we had 20 years ago. So all of these investments that we think are very effective, clearly they are not. We need all the tools in the tool-box to meet the enormous size of the challenge and the very short time we have to address it."

Wagner recalled a Bloomberg article from November 2019, which had the headline, 'Earth Needs Fewer People to Beat the Climate Crisis, Scientists Say', and the strapline, 'More than 11,000 experts sign an emergency declaration warning that energy, food and reproduction must change immediately'.

"I think those things are hard to change except for energy," he said. "So seriousness about understanding what can be done and how to do it is really critical. Nuclear has to be included as a policy option, and if it is valued for its attributes - low-carbon reliability, resiliency, grid stability and flexibility - then it will prevail as a significant component to the climate solution that we need."

For policymakers to pay attention, the public first needs to be better informed about nuclear energy and also no longer misinformed about it, Khuttan said.

"It's the public perception issue, making sure the public are asking for it and getting them fired up to ensure it's part of the combination," he said. "It's just about communicating it correctly and making sure that people understand the relative risks of everything we do, and how nuclear fits into that conversation. I think that if we are part of the conversation that everything will start to snowball from there."

Adaptable fleet

The contribution that nuclear energy has made for decades to curbing global emissions is often taken for granted, while the assumption it is a dying industry is a false one.

Gordon noted that the USA's current nuclear reactor fleet provides 20% of its electricity generation, but also more than 50% of its low-carbon power output. Globally, those figures are 10% and 20%. About 30 countries have nuclear power plants in operation.

The fact there are around 50 reactors under construction shows there is still "a very vibrant new-build programme that spans the world", Magwood said. "Nuclear remains the single largest source of non-emitting electricity in the developed world and globally it is the second biggest, after hydropower. That fact is in spite of all the investments made in other sources of clean energy."

Asked how nuclear and renewables can work together, Wagner highlighted the ability of light water reactors to provide load following.

In France, where 75% of electricity is from nuclear energy, the load following capability was part of the design of the country's units and has been used for decades, he said. More recently, upgrades have been performed to enable "even more rapid" load following to help accommodate power from renewable sources. In many other countries, load following was not factored into the design of operations and hence retrofits are required.

"In the United States, with increasing use of renewables, the electricity market conditions are increasingly favouring flexibility, which is driving increased interest in load following capabilities," he said. "Another way to be flexible is to use that energy for things other than electricity, when the electricity is not needed or when it is not favoured in the markets."

INL is working with several utilities in the USA to demonstrate the use of nuclear energy for hydrogen production through electrolysis. "That's absolutely technically feasible, it has been done and there are options on how to do that," Wagner said.

Asked about the nuclear newcomer countries, Bilbao y Léon said a lot depends on the "specific natural endowment" of each nation, along with its cultural, historical and social situation. In addition to large reactors, a new opportunity is emerging with small modular reactors (SMRs), which "can truly be game changing for decarbonisation at the global level", she said, since they have a smaller capital outlay and are therefore much easier to finance.

"These reactors are going to be customisable to open new markets. Electricity is one of the key products but there are many other applications, such as heat, hydrogen, fresh water and these reactors can be designed specifically to needs," she said. "And because of their smaller size and the inherent flexibility in their design, they are going to be adaptable in the new, more distributed energy systems that we are seeing, with more penetration of variable energy sources."

Khuttan highlighted nuclear energy's potential to decarbonise other sectors in addition to electricity, which is only "one piece of the pie" for emissions. A significant other piece is industrial processes since, for example, as much as 10% of global emissions come from the manufacture of steel.

"Steel is used everywhere and is really important, especially in developing economies, for everything from bridges to mobile phones, so it's not something that we can just get rid of," he said. "You really need coal to make steel as we know it. Coal acts as a reducing agent as well as providing the high-process heat, and this is where hydrogen can step in, acting as that reducing agent."

Using nuclear energy to produce hydrogen can decarbonise those harder-to-abate industries, and steel is just one of them.

"There's a whole raft of other industrial processes; there's chemicals and we can start to use hydrogen in synthetic fuels, such as in ammonia in shipping, HGVs and even in aircraft, so there's a lot of potential for nuclear to step in here. And hydrogen can be used in boiler systems, such as with gas-fired central heating. You can intercept that supply and add hydrogen up to about 20% in current boilers to bring those natural gas emissions down, but there's a limit and there are a lot of innovative technologies coming out which can start to combat that if we have a lot of hydrogen."

Nuclear energy can be used not only for the production of high-temperature process heat, but also low-grade heat can be used in district heating, which China has started to demonstrate, he said.

"If you have the infrastructure in place, you can really start to reduce your district heating and space heating emissions, which are another massive part of that emissions pie. Power is important but transport, industrial processes and heating are really the next big chunks to go for."

Real costs

Long-term and bipartisan policies that support nuclear power are crucial to attracting investors to the industry, the panellists said.

Gordon noted that the Biden Administration's American Jobs Plan will establish an energy efficiency and clean electricity standard, and that it talks about leveraging the carbon-free electricity provided by existing sources, like hydro and nuclear power. The details on this are, however, "mostly left up to Congress", she said.

Asked whether this standard is "what nuclear energy has been waiting for" or whether additional policies are needed, Magwood said, "It's certainly a key decision to be made in the United States. One of the real difficulties we've seen over the last decade or so is that nuclear has been excluded from these kinds of standards, which isn’t just not subsidising or not benefitting nuclear, but penalising nuclear despite the benefits that it brings."

If this standard does not include nuclear, then utilities will have no economic choice but to take their reactor units offline, which would "set the entire effort to reducing carbon emissions in the United States back dramatically", he said.

The future of nuclear goes beyond light water reactors though, as the industry approaches the advent of technologies that "change the entire conversation" of how nuclear plants are built, how they operate, and where they are sited, he said. The first of these new technologies are already going through the regulatory approval process and are going to be available for commercial purposes in the next decade, he added.

"We need to have the ability to absorb the initial costs of these first-of-a-kind technologies in a way that shows they work and can be cost-effective, but reduce risk to those who are in the private sector sufficiently to get them built. Those policies must be pursued to make these technologies available. That's exactly what happened with renewables, that's exactly what's happened with almost every large advanced technology for many years, and nuclear should get that as well. If we do that, these technologies will be available and will contribute dramatically to reducing carbon emissions in the United States and around the world."

FOAK lessons

Asked how to make nuclear competitive for private companies, Bilbao y Léon said that it was true there had been delays and cost-overruns at several FOAK projects in North America and Western Europe that had "perhaps not set a good example of how a new nuclear project should go". There are however examples of projects, in China, South Korea, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, that have been completed on time and within the estimated budget.

Evidence suggests that using design standardisation and making a commitment to a programme with multi-unit, serial construction is going to be critical, she said. Long gaps between nuclear projects, moreover, lead to "atrophied skills and an eroded supply chain".

"These instances of project delays are really a vicious circle because they discourage investors, who then demand higher premiums and interest rates. It's true for all high capital investment low-carbon energy sources, but for nuclear in particular the financing is key," she said, because more than 75% of the levelised cost of nuclear power is from the cost of finance. There is a window of opportunity, she said, to have government support to reduce this cost. "When I say government support, I don’t mean government financing. I mean government support in creating confidence, in creating long-term energy policies that are going to incentivise public and private investment in nuclear projects."

SMRs and micro-reactors are by design able to address cost issues associated with nuclear projects, Wagner said.

The use of factory-built components that require on-site assembly, rather than on-site construction, is one feature, while another is their modularity. The NuScale SMR, for example, can consist of up to 12 modules, but these can be installed in increments as and when they are needed. Another feature of these reactors is the efficiencies gained through repetition, which will "stop making every new nuclear project a first-of-a-kind project, which is where we've been in recent years", he said.

Innovation now

Policymakers shouldn't assume that these technologies are too far from deployment to be helpful to the climate debate now.

"Unless you are in the midst of this you may not realise that we're not as far away as some people think. I do worry that global leaders and folks that are involved in climate policy, have heard that nuclear won’t be ready in time to meet certain goals," he said.

There is in fact "a lot going on" with these new reactor designs, thanks to private sector innovators and investors, he said. Examples include the Department of Energy's National Reactor Innovation Centre at INL that was authorised by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, and its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Programme.

INL's strategy is to develop "a cadence" of advanced reactor demonstrations with increasing sizes, he said. This sequence includes, among others, the 100 kW Microreactor Applications Research Validation & EvaLuation (MARVEL) project, which will be demonstrated in 2022-2023; followed by a mobile nuclear power plant in 2023-2024; and TerraPower's chloride molten salt reactor in 2024-2025.

"Putting all this together there is a lot going on to enable these reactors to be available quite a bit sooner than many people realise," Wagner said.


The claim that 'nuclear is expensive' is an argument often used by anti-nuclear activists, Khuttan said, but this misses the point that nuclear energy has a system-wide value; not least in the stability it gives the grid. It also misses the bigger picture, he added, of the need for a sustainable clean energy transition.

"I would spin the argument the other way because for a healthy, abundant sustainable future, we need to do what it takes, even if the costs were high. Should we not do what it takes to get to that future that we want?"

He referred to the assessment of the Joint Research Centre, conducted as part of research for the EU Taxonomy on Sustainable Finance, that nuclear energy does no more harm to human health or the environment than any other power-producing technology considered to be sustainable.

"So nuclear energy is sustainable energy, it does so many things that other technologies don’t and it is low cost," he said, and with policy support it can flourish.

Magwood said: "The cost of nuclear is something that has been debated for many years but something that has been missed somewhat is that we really need to be looking at the whole system, at how much it costs to provide reliable electricity. Who cares what particular unit of generation is feeding into it? We get into this game where we compare individual units with each other as though they were interchangeable. They're not. The grid works as a whole and when you look at the impact on the grid of different sources of generation, you see different costs and that's something I think governments, policymakers, are slowly getting smarter about and we're seeing much more sophisticated questions and understanding about what's happening with the grid today."

The notion that renewable energy is cheap because the sun and wind are free is wearing thin, he said, since the system costs created from their variable and fluctuating supply of electricity are not being reflected in the market.

"It's these extraneous system costs that consumers ultimately pay for but when you're making decisions, these decisions are informed by the wrong numbers and that's something that we're trying to shed light on."

The cost of nuclear could be reduced through harmonisation of regulatory processes, he said, since this would avoid the need for regulators in each and every country assessing a new technology "from scratch".

Harmonisation of codes, standards, regulatory processes and licensing won’t be easy, he said, but "the closer we can get to that, the better we'll be able to provide products of the future to the world in one time instead of slowly, country by country, regulator by regulator."

Bilbao y Léon stressed the role of the existing fleet of nuclear power plants and referred to a report published in December last year by the NEA and the International Energy Agency, which concluded that electricity from the long-term operation of existing plants constitutes the least cost option for low-carbon generation.

"The long-term operation of the existing fleet opens not only a cost-effective low-carbon energy source, but also provides shovel-ready jobs and incredibly enormous opportunities for socio-economic trickledown benefits that are going to be great for society as a whole," she said. "We must not miss the opportunity to keep the current fleet up and running because it's going to be a perfect bridge towards the next generation, whether that's nuclear or other low-carbon energy sources."

Real people

As important as the 'reality-checks' about the attributes of nuclear energy in climate debates, is the need to show that the industry is not a faceless entity, but one with a diverse and international mix of hundreds of thousands of people, Khuttan said. The task, then, is to increase the number of advocates for nuclear energy at COP26.

The Nuclear for Climate initiative has official observer status at COPs, which means they have "a limited number of tickets" in the Blue Zone, which is where legislators and policymakers congregate, he said, and there are also more "public-facing" areas at COP where "we can get the conversation around nuclear going".

A collective voice is key and, crucially, Nuclear for Climate's 30,000 members come from 2500 NGOs, some of which also have observer status at COPs, and there are many other groups to coordinate with, such as the Climate Action Network. Another opportunity is encouraging the almost 60 national braches of the Young Generation Network (YGN) to engage with their governments. An example of this, he said, is the UK YGN's Net Zero Needs Nuclear campaign.

"We're all working towards the same thing here," he said. "We're trying to get to a clean, sustainable future." One of his "strategies" at COP, is to wear his old T-shirt with a picture of a wind turbine on it. "I'm an environmentalist first and foremost, and I'm into nuclear because of that."

The full recording of Raising Ambitions: The role of nuclear energy in meeting climate goals is on YouTube.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

Date: Tuesday, 13 April 2021
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