Together is Better

20 June 2024 - // Features
Jadwiga Najder
Science and Outreach Manager at European Nuclear Society.

Nuclear power and its place in the energy mix of tomorrow

2 December 2023, Dubai. At the sidelines of COP28, a gathering of high-level officials representing 22 countries formalizes a declaration aiming at tripling global nuclear capacity by 2050 to reach Net Zero. This, together with the declaration of tripling renewable energy output by 2030, proves the commitment of world leaders to an accelerated energy transition globally. 

Some days later, on 13 December 2023, in the text of COP28 Global Stocktake, the Conference of Parties, “calls on accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies including inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies.”  

In March 2024, at the global-scale Nuclear Energy Summit organized by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Belgian Prime Minister, leaders of more than 30 countries spoke about the importance of nuclear power for energy security, climate goals, and sustainable development. In her speech, European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen listed actions for the nuclear sector and government, the achievement of which would enable the nuclear sector a significant contribution to a rapid, safe, and secure net-zero future. 

This rising momentum for nuclear energy, judging by the headlines, may seem rather recent, but nuclear, alongside renewable energy, has been continuously recognized by international organizations as a key source for the future global energy mix.  

Nuclear, alongside renewable energy, has been continuously recognized by international organizations as a key source for the future global energy mix. 

For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s  6th Assessment Report shows 80% of analyzed scenarios corresponding to 2 degrees warming or less, need future expansion of nuclear power, while IAEA, in its high case projection of nuclear electrical generation by 2050, foresees more than doubling of production. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development-International Energy Agency concludes that its Net Zero Emissions scenario, if realized with a large decrease in nuclear, would bring significant challenges and cost escalation.  

Back at COP28, European Nuclear Society delegates led hundreds of discussions with policy-makers, environmental activists, and other COP participants, under the flagship of the global grassroots initiative Nuclear for Climate, aiming to raise awareness about nuclear technologies in service of climate, environment, and sustainable development. Since the initiative’s establishment in 2015, reluctance has been replaced gradually by curiosity, high hopes, and remaining doubts about nuclear energy.  

We need to achieve Net Zero and sustainable development 

Targets like Net Zero by 2050 or the European Union’s (EU’s) 2040 Climate Target announced in February 2024, require rapid decarbonization of all sectors of activity, which is inevitably related to replacing fossil-based electric power with low-carbon ones like renewables and nuclear, electrification of as many processes as possible, and decarbonizing so-called hard-to-abate sectors, which require more gymnastics to avoid emissions.  

In the face of these needs, nuclear energy has significant value, as it is the energy source with one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions throughout its whole life cycle, and the source that uses the least amount of land and critical materials per unit of energy produced. This efficiency enables the production of a large amount of electricity and heat while minimizing the impact on the environment.  

Volunteer Julieta Romero poses in front of the Nuclear for Climate mural designed by her, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Julieta Romero / Nuclear for Climate Initiative 

Future projects of nuclear power plants (NPPs) will include not only traditionally known large reactors but also Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Their smaller size (up to one-third of a standard reactor) and simplified, factory-based design, allows flexible implementation of one or several units, providing electricity and heat access for traditional users or for remote areas and small or developing countries. SMRs and their more advanced models (called AMRs) can also produce heat for industrial use, which could help to decarbonize some hard-to-abate sectors.  

We need security of supply 

The current geopolitical situation causing wide-ranging supply issues and spiking electricity prices, on top of the challenge of climate change, proves the dire need to ensure the security of the provision of clean energy for Europe.  

Each energy source has its specific characteristics and mode of operation. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind, due to their variable nature, would need backup from fossil fuels or storage solutions, which do not exist now at a necessary scale or level of advancement. Hydro energy is highly dependent on localization and suffers from changing weather conditions. Therefore, only synergy of all clean sources like renewables and nuclear, according to the needs of each state, provides diversity and reliability, ensuring security of supply.  

Nuclear energy provides electricity 24/7 with stops every 1–1.5 years to reload the fuel, with a long plant operating life and high resiliency against unfavorable weather conditions. Moreover, nuclear is also a dispatchable energy source – it is possible to increase or decrease the production at demand, which is practiced in France for example, or to produce hydrogen in low-demand periods. Even better flexibility characteristics will be provided with the onset of SMRs.  

This circular economy of nuclear fuel will be further supported by new technologies. 

The curious thing about spent nuclear fuel is that already now, part of it is not ‘designated as waste,’ but is being reprocessed for reuse. In practice, only a small part of the material loaded into a reactor is used up, so after the treatment of used fuel, more electricity can be produced. 

This circular economy of nuclear fuel will be further supported by new technologies that allow the production of energy from spent nuclear fuel that is now considered waste.  

But it will take too long to build and cost too much 

After energy sustainability and security, affordability closes the triangle called the energy trilemma, a term coined by the World Energy Council. 

When it comes to nuclear energy, it offers one of the most cost-effective ways of producing clean energy by keeping the currently operating plants open for longer. NPPs running now turn out to be more robust than their initial assumptions, and after performing some updates, they can keep successful operation up to two times longer in the scope of so-called Long-Term Operation, which is currently one of the cheapest available ways to produce clean energy.  

Uranium oxide fuel pellet, weighing less than 10 grams, produces the amount of energy of 1 ton of coal. Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

In the case of nuclear energy, the largest part of the cost is the upfront investment in constructing an NPP, followed later by low costs of operation, maintenance, and fuel, with very low grid development needs (compared to sources like solar and wind) and very long lifetime of installation – with Long-Term Operation up to 80 years.  

After decades of lower construction activities in the nuclear sector, triggering supply chain and workforce challenges, some of the recent projects saw cost overruns and delays, while others were completed within acceptable time and budget. Historic data shows however, that realizing several projects in sequence will drive down the cost significantly, as has been the case in France between 1970–2000, with the last reactors built in each construction campaign being up to 23% cheaper than the first ones.  

This economy of scale will be particularly pronounced in SMRs – thanks to their smaller size and modularity, not only smaller initial capital is required but also through a more pronounced learning curve, the more they are built, the faster and cheaper they will be.  

All clean energy sources are needed to achieve net-zero and sustainable development. 

Acceleration of development, demonstration, and deployment of this reactor type in Europe was recently kickstarted by the EC in the form of the SMR Industrial Alliance – an effective collaboration among all involved stakeholders that improves the chances of SMR technologies contributing soon to rapid and large-scale decarbonization of energy and other sectors of human activity. 

At COP28, the pavilion of the Nuclear for Climate initiative was decorated with a mural presenting all low-carbon energy sources: renewables and nuclear, stating ‘together is better.’ This simple slogan underpins what science and technology show and what policy-makers start to recognize: all clean energy sources are needed to achieve net-zero and sustainable development.  

To bring words to action, stable support from world leaders and a well-informed society is a must.  

Jadwiga Najder
Science and Outreach Manager at European Nuclear Society.

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