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Nuclear power emerges again as acceptable carbon-free generation source

20 May 2021 Amena Saiyid

Nuclear power is beginning to gain more prominence as a viable carbon-free emitting source as countries, notably the US, China, France, and the Russian Federation, race to reach net-zero levels after a decade in which the technology's prospects and profile took a pounding.

At the recently concluded Leaders Summit on Climate, held virtually 22-23 April, International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol acknowledged the role nuclear power would play in helping countries decarbonize, especially those that have announced net-zero carbon goals.

"We have many technologies at our disposal today -- energy efficiency, solar, wind, electric cars, nuclear power, and many more -- and we need to deploy these as quickly as possible," Birol said at the summit.

At the summit, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explicitly acknowledged the role existing nuclear plants have played in reducing the country's carbon footprint. US President Joe Biden came out in favor of supporting investments in small modular nuclear reactors to help the country halve its GHG emissions by 2030.

Still other countries like Vietnam and Poland acknowledged the use of this power source in their climate targets. However, the heads of other developed countries like China, France, Japan, Canada, and the UK, though relying on nuclear power to reach their targets, did not mention it in their speeches.

The IEA for its part followed up Birol's remarks with an 18 May report, "Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector" that identified nuclear and hydropower as "the two largest sources of low-carbon electricity" that will provide an essential foundation for a transition to a global net-zero economy.

In the report that came out this week, the IEA forecast 90% of electricity generated in 2050 will be from renewables, with wind and solar making up 70% of the fuel mix, while nuclear power will make up the remainder.

Direct heat, low cost, reliable

Nuclear power has two advantages over other sources, according to advocates. It can provide heat directly to industrial processes and it can generate power cheaply and reliably without releasing GHGs. Since the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan and caused radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, public opposition has remained strong against any new plants coming online.

However, nuclear power to date has been responsible for avoiding 200 million mt of CO2 each year, which is the same as removing 400 million cars of the world's roads, the World Nuclear Association wrote in a policy paper, "The Silent Giant: The need for nuclear in a clean energy system."

"Nuclear power checks all the boxes in our effort to meet zero-carbon goals," said Bret Kugelmass, managing director of the Washington DC-based Energy Impact Center, which advocates for nuclear power as a clean energy solution for the climate crisis.

On top of supplying nearly 10% of global electricity, Kugelmass said nuclear generation uses what he considers a negligible site footprint compared with wind and solar facilities.

Former rivals agree on nuclear power

The US, France, China, the Russian Federation, and South Korea were ranked as the top five nuclear generating countries in 2018, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a US-based trade association.

At the April summit, Biden pointed to the jobs and opportunities that would be created through innovating and investing in the latest small modular reactors. His climate plan also spotlighted leveraging carbon-free power generated by existing plants.

"Manufacturing workers building nuclear and carbon capture technologies, solar panels, and wind turbines," Biden said, adding "… this challenge and these opportunities are going to be met by working people in every nation. And as we transition to a clean energy future, we must ensure that workers who have thrived in yesterday's and today's industries have as bright a tomorrow in the new industries as well as in the places where they live, in the communities they have built."

Putin said at the summit that 45% of Russia's energy comes from low-emissions sources, including nuclear. "It is common knowledge that nuclear power plants produce almost zero greenhouse gas emissions throughout their life cycle," he emphasized.

And on 19 May, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping witnessed the ground-breaking ceremony for four new nuclear power units in China through a livestream. Units 7 and 8 of the Tianwan nuclear plant and units 3 and 4 of the Xudapu plant will be constructed using Russian equipment.

"Responding to climate change is a common task for all countries," Xi said, "China and Russia should promote more low-carbon cooperation projects and play a constructive role in achieving global sustainable development goals."

Noting that cooperation on peaceful use of nuclear power marks a new era for the two countries, Putin said: "I believe that the start of the four nuclear power units will not only inject new vitality into the further development of Russia-China relations, but also help achieve the goals to peak carbon dioxide emissions and achieve carbon neutrality."

South Korea nixing nuclear

South Korea is not relying on its existing nuclear power fleet to meet its net-zero goals in contrast to China, France, the UK, and Japan.

Contrary to the other top nuclear nations, South Korea has announced plans to exit nuclear power. South Korea's Third Basic Energy Plan -- a high-level national policy released in 2019 to guide the country's energy strategy through to 2040 -- said nuclear power plant lifetimes will not be extended, and no new facilities will be built. The country's Ninth Basic Plan for Electricity Supply and Demand that would flesh out the contributions of each existing energy source is slated for release sometime this year.

At the April climate summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-In announced the country would be submitting an updated and strengthened GHG reduction target, while announcing an end to new coal build at home and abroad. He did not discuss the nuclear phaseout.

France, which currently obtains 70% of its annual power generation of about 61,370 MWh from nuclear, is on a path to reducing its reliance on the source to 50%, while China's 14th Five-Year Plan is looking at accelerated development of both renewables and nuclear power in the next five years as one of the main drivers toward its net-zero goals by 2060.

UK is ranked tenth in terms of nuclear power generation in the world, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not give a nod to nuclear power in his speech at the summit. However, his 10-point plan for a "green industrial revolution," released in November 2020, consider the generation technology as a key climate solution.

Building on Johnson's 10-point plan, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma released a white paper, "Powering our Net Zero Future," in December 2020 that noted that nuclear power currently supplies 16% of the country's needs, but also that the country's existing eight plants will cease operating by the end of 2030.

UK, Japan need nuclear

Electricite de France SA (EDF) began construction of the Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset in 2016 and is expected to bring it online in the middle of this decade. Although Hinkley Point C is expected to supply around 7% of the UK's electricity once it is online, the white paper stated: "Our analysis suggests additional nuclear beyond Hinkley Point C will be needed in a low-cost 2050 electricity system of very low emissions. We must be ready for this."

Planning is currently underway on a 3,200-MW Sizewell C power plant in eastern England that EDF also is planning to build in partnership with China General Nuclear Power Group, a Chinese-government-backed company that the US government has blacklisted for allegedly attempting to acquire advanced US nuclear technology and material for diversion to military use.

Sharma said the UK plans to invest £1 billion in the country's energy innovation program to develop the technologies of the future such as advanced nuclear and clean hydrogen and aims to bring at least one large-scale nuclear project to the point of Final Investment Decision (FID) by the end of this Parliament, in May 2024, "subject to clear value for money and all relevant approvals."

"We are pursuing large-scale nuclear, whilst also looking to the future of nuclear power in the UK through further investment in small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors," Sharma said.

Similar to the UK, Japan, which is ranked 12th in terms of nuclear generation, also is looking at this power source as key to its decarbonization goals. Prime Minister Suga Hoshihide announced a new interim goal for Japan of reducing its GHGs emissions by 46% by 2030 compared with 2013 levels and reaching net-zero levels by 2050. To reach that goal, Japan too is considering the use of existing nuclear as well as small modular reactors like the US in its power mix, according to a translation of the country's Green Growth Strategy.

Gates pushes nuclear

Interest in small modular nuclear reactors is rising in the highest echelons of the US business world too, with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates pushing for innovation in nuclear power plant technology in his recently published book, titled "How to avoid a Climate Disaster."

During a 1 March talk at CERAWeek by IHS Markit, Gates discussed an investment of about $2 billion in TerraPower, which is developing a nuclear reactor that he said would provide carbon-free power without the safety concerns that arise with traditional plants. In October, the US Department of Energy awarded a contract for up to $4 billion to TerraPower and X-Energy to build next-generation nuclear plants within the next seven years.

Beyond electricity generation, nuclear plants have a role in producing heat directly for buildings and industry (the sectors responsible for half of all carbon emissions), which Kugelmass said would be three times as cost effective than if another form of electricity generation was used to produce heat for these processes.

"That just leaves transportation, which the US Navy has successfully prototyped nuclear energy's potential in producing carbon-neutral fuels from little more than seawater," he added.

Public fears over leaks

Gates acknowledged public fears about nuclear power, especially after Fukushima, which reinforced concerns about the dangers of radiation that 1986's catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear power plant fire in Russia ignited.

For instance, Germany is in the process of shuttering 26 nuclear plants, with the last plant being taken off grid by the end of 2022, and France is also reducing its reliance on nuclear generation from more than 70% to about 50% as it moves towards net-zero targets.

Although the partial meltdown of the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania a decade prior resulted in small quantities of radiation being released, the incident is recorded as the worst US nuclear power plant accident and has been enough to scare some parts of the public.

In the US, public opposition remains strong, with environmental advocates cheering the permanent closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant along the Hudson River in New York in April 2021.

The last nuclear plant that came online in the US was in Tennessee in 2016, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Unit 2; it was the first new US reactor to come online since 1996.

Although US utility Southern Company received federal approval in 2021 to build two new reactors, Units 3 and 4, at its Vogtle plant in Georgia in 2012, they are still not online yet because of construction delays. The utility is aiming to bring Unit 3 online towards the end of 2021, but that date has been pushed back again into early 2022 owing to pandemic-related delays. The start date for Unit 4 though planned for end 2022 also remains up in the air as well.

Cost overruns

But even when they start up, Vogtle's cost overruns could give pause to investors. The two units were originally expected to cost about $14 billion combined, but the latest estimate is more than $25 billion, and hearings will be held in Georgia later this year for regulators to wrestle with who is responsible for covering the additional expense.

South Carolina Electric and Gas gave up on construction of two additional reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station after spending $9 billion on the project due to cost overruns and mismanagement.

However, Kugelmass maintains that nuclear power remains the cheapest source of energy to date and is unfazed by the problems faced by the sector. "It's only shortcomings are time and cost to build, which are just an artifact of recent industry trends," he added.

Proponents of nuclear power including Kugelmass remain cautiously optimistic about the energy source's prospects in the US, and they point to Biden's explicit nod to nuclear power, which to date has been treated like the stepchild of low-carbon energy sources.

The Biden administration has demonstrated its commitment to addressing the global climate crisis through a whole-of-government approach to decarbonization that includes carbon-free nuclear energy paired with wind, solar, carbon capture, and energy storage, John Kotek, NEI senior vice president of policy development and public affairs, told IHS Markit in an email.

Kotek said the president's climate plan provides an opportunity to rethink the role of nuclear energy in climate and impact investing.

"Any efforts made to reach net-zero must include changes in financial practices, such as smart investments, international exports, and effective policymaking, to ensure nuclear energy is part of the solution," Kotek said, adding: "We expect to see continued growth of the strong, bipartisan support for nuclear energy and are confident the Biden administration understands nuclear's role in addressing the climate crisis."

Even groups such as The Center for Strategic and International Studies that maintain an agnostic stance when it comes to fuel sources noted Biden's acknowledgement of nuclear power. "We definitely sensed a greater clarity from the Biden administration's support for nuclear," Jane Nakano, senior fellow with the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program, told IHS Markit.

Biden's consistent support

Nakano said Biden has been consistent since his presidential campaign days about his support for nuclear innovation.

Biden has set an ambitious net-zero timeline for the power generation sector of 2035 and the economy as a whole by 2050, she said. "I think the practical approach has led to more clear support for nuclear," Nakano said.

During an 18 May online conversation at the 2021 Columbia Global Energy Summit, US National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy reiterated the administration's support for nuclear power. Reactors provide "a stable baseload system," keep GHG emissions down, and are going to be an essential part of the US energy mix "while we build out our transmission system" to enable greater penetration of renewables, McCarthy said.

McCarthy was responding to a question from Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, who asked her to explain whether the US would continue to support existing nuclear plants as part of its net-zero goals.

"In many areas, continuation of existing nuclear as long as its environmentally sound and its permitted is going to be absolutely essential because we need the time to actually find a way to get renewable energy in a bigger pot of [energy] mix in those areas," she said.

McCarthy said the US isn't going after a net-zero target naively by shutting down plants that provide reliable and affordable power. "We're going to do it in a deliberate and expedited way," she added.

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