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11 months ago

Climate Action 2010-2011

Energy and Mitigation

Energy and Mitigation Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, California. © Creative commons/flickr/Emdot The role of nuclear energy in combating climate change Luis Echávarri Director-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) Nuclear power currently provides 14 per cent of global electricity production and reduces global CO 2 emissions by up to 3 billion tonnes per year when compared to electricity generated from coal. In this article, Luis Echávarri, director-general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency asserts that increasing nuclear energy to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is possible, but must be accompanied by actions to ensure safety, manage high level waste and prevent proliferation of nuclear material. For nuclear and other capital-intensive low-carbon technologies, the key challenge is economic. Electricity prices must be predictable and a stable, longterm carbon pricing mechanism established. The need to cut GHG emissions in an effort to limit climate change has become a major driver of energy policy. This includes a shift towards less carbon-intensive solutions for electricity generation. Indeed, many believe that an ‘energy revolution’ is needed to decarbonise our energy supply, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. The consensus among scientists is that at least half of GHG emissions must be cut from 2005 levels by 2050 if the world is to limit the average temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Electricity supply is one sector in which measures to cut GHG emissions can most easily be introduced and enforced. But decarbonising the power sector over | 54 | the next four decades is still an enormous challenge. Existing infrastructure is slow to change and coal-fired plants now under construction may still be in operation in 2050. Meanwhile, demand is rapidly increasing in many developing countries, where large-scale, low-carbon energy sources may not be available or will take a long time to develop. Nuclear energy already contributes to cutting GHG emissions... One route to low-carbon electricity is via an expansion of nuclear power. Nuclear power is an established, large-scale energy source with the potential to expand significantly over the next 40 years. In 2009, about 14 per cent of global electricity production, or about 21 per cent of production in OECD countries, was fuelled by nuclear energy. Using nuclear power reduces global CO 2 emissions by up to 3 billion tonnes per year, assuming that this power would otherwise be produced by burning coal. This means that, without nuclear power, OECD countries would emit as much as one-third more CO 2 from their power plants than they do now. The cumulative emissions of CO 2 from fossil fuels used for electricity production in OECD countries over the period 1971 to 2004 amounted to 218 gigatonnes (Gt), and the cumulative savings from the use of nuclear power were 58 Gt of CO 2 equivalent. In other words, www.climateactionprogramme.org

Energy and Mitigation using nuclear power reduced the cumulative emissions from generating power during that period by over a fifth. Clearly, if the present nuclear capacity were to be phased out, it would make the goal of decarbonising electricity supply an even more challenging and distant prospect. …and could contribute even more Nuclear power technology has been developed over more than 50 years, and the latest designs for nuclear power plants incorporate best-practice knowledge. In recent years, a number of governments have also reassessed their approach to nuclear energy and now view it as an important part of their energy strategy. Others, however, continue to believe that nuclear should not be part of their energy supply mix. Scenarios for future electricity supply prepared by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in the Nuclear Energy technology Roadmap (2010), based on a reduction of CO 2 emissions to around half of 2005 levels by 2050, show that nuclear power has a vital role to play, alongside improved energy end-use efficiency, a major expansion of renewables, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) from fossil fuel burning. These scenarios envisage a nuclear capacity of around 1,200 GWe by 2050, compared with 370 Gigawatt electrical (GWe) today – an expansion of over 300 per cent. This would require the completion of around 20 large nuclear plants (of 1.5 GWe each) per year during the 2020s, rising to 25 to 30 plants per year in the 2040s. In its Nuclear Energy Outlook (2008), the NEA found that nuclear capacity could reach 1,400 GWe by 2050 under its ‘high’ scenario, through an even stronger expansion in the 2040s. The IEA and the NEA projections indicate that nuclear energy could provide around a quarter of global electricity with almost no CO 2 emissions. Clearly, these scenarios would require mobilising much greater industrial, human and financial resources than currently exist. Such expansion would take years to achieve, not least because it would require large-scale investment and a major increase in the workforce with the necessary skills and training. However, governments are aware of this issue and are beginning to address it. The major expansion of nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s indicates that, given strong policy support, nuclear power can expand rapidly. During the 1980s, nuclear plant completions peaked at over 30 units per year, with an average of 22 units per year over the decade. Although these were smaller than many current designs, the technology was also less well-developed at that time. In addition, relatively few countries were involved in that expansion, and overall global industrial capacity was significantly smaller. Much of the future expansion of electricity supply will take place in large developing countries. Foremost among them are China and India, both of which are already embarking on ambitious nuclear programmes. Three facts about nuclear energy The IEA and the NEA projections indicate that nuclear energy could provide around a quarter of global electricity with almost no CO 2 emissions. However, critics of nuclear power remain concerned about safety, disposal of nuclear waste and the proliferation of nuclear materials and technologies. While there will always be some people opposed to nuclear energy and other complex technologies, we believe that the challenges of nuclear waste and proliferation can be convincingly addressed to the satisfaction of broad majorities in different countries. It is worth recalling three facts in this context. Safety: The safety record of nuclear power continues to improve against all the measures used to assess the level of good performance, including worker safety, environmental impacts and frequencies of incidents. Only one incident has occurred in a Western reactor and there were no fatalities or injuries. While the major accident at Chernobyl was an enormous tragedy, the safety record of modern reactors is at the highest level, especially in comparison with other energy producing technologies. This must not lead to complacency, nuclear will always require strict supervision and special safeguards, but its safety performance must be measured according to the same yardstick that is used for other technologies. Waste: In OECD countries, nuclear waste, including high-level wastes and spent fuel, have been stored for the past 50 years without a single major incident. Most of these wastes have been stored on-site at nuclear power plants in water-filled pools or encapsulated in special containers of vitrified glass in concrete lined holes or appropriately shielded rooms. While a period of cooling is necessary after removing from the reactor, this cannot be a definite solution. That is why several of our member countries are building or are planning to build long-term facilities for final disposal. Again, while all possible safeguards need to be taken, the challenges here are comparable with those for hazardous wastes from other industries and the major impediments are political commitments and public acceptance. Nuclear proliferation: Proliferation is certainly a challenge to the international community. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has concluded safeguards agreements with more than 170 countries to date. Comprehensive safeguards agreement and additional protocols reinforcing verifications are concluded with more than 90 countries. Last year, the first international nuclear fuel bank was set up in order to ensure supply and prevent the spreading of enrichment facilities. Nuclear materials are probably the most rigorously controlled and internationally monitored materials under international watch. www.climateactionprogramme.org | 55 |