The urgent need to reduce emissions and slow global heating should involve the roll-out of more nuclear power stations, according to a new briefing released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) on 11 August. In the run up to the COP 21 meeting in Glasgow, UNECE argues that nuclear power can help deliver on the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UNECE, set up in 1947, is one of five regional commissions of the United Nations. Its main aim is to promote pan-European economic integration. UNECE includes 56 member states in Europe, North America, Central Asia and Western Asia.
“Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that can contribute to attaining carbon neutrality and hence help to mitigate climate change,” UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova said. The new technology brief warns that “time is running out to rapidly transform the global energy system,” as fossil fuels still account for over half of electricity generation in the UNECE region.
The 24-page report highlights how only hydropower has played a greater role in avoiding carbon emissions over the past 50 years. Nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source that has avoided about 74Gt of CO2 emissions over this period, nearly two years’ worth of total global energy-related emissions, it notes. Yet nuclear power currently provides 20% of electricity generated in the UNECE region and 43% of low-carbon generation.
The publication comes shortly after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report, warning that some climate change trends are currently now irreversible, but there is still time to limit it with strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.
The UNECE document also highlights a 2018 report by the IPCC which sees demand for nuclear generation increase six times by 2050 with the technology providing 25% of global electricity. Nuclear power, it stated, has the potential to increase its integration with other low-carbon energy sources in a future decarbonised energy mix.
In the UNECE region, nuclear power is providing over 30% of electric generation in 11 countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine). The report notes that 20 countries currently operate NPPs, and 15 have new reactors under construction or under development. Seven UNECE member states are in the process of developing nuclear power programmes for the first time.
A number of countries - such as Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Russia, Ukraine, the UK and the USA - have explicitly stated that nuclear power will play an important role in reducing their national emissions in the future.
In contrast, Belgium and Germany have announced phasing out nuclear power, in 2025 and 2023 respectively. Over 70 reactors have been shut down since 2000, for political, economic or technical reasons. In most cases, these have been replaced at least partly by fossil-fuel power generation. The report argues that this represents a setback for climate mitigation efforts. Preventing the premature closure of further NPPs is seen by the International Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as an urgent priority for addressing climate change, it states.
As NPPs produce both low-carbon electricity and heat, they also offer opportunities to decarbonise energy intensive industries, the UNECE report argues, such as scaling up low or zero-carbon steel, hydrogen, and chemical production to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors. Moreover, nuclear power is cost-competitive in many parts of the world.
However, UNECE warns that to prevent radiological accidents and manage radioactive waste, risks must be properly anticipated and handled. Some countries choose not to pursue nuclear power because they consider the risks to be unacceptable. The technology brief highlights the need for nations that use nuclear power to work together on these issues to help mitigate climate change and accelerate deployment of low-carbon technologies.
UNECE says the purpose of the report “is to provide an overview of nuclear energy technologies, both those that are available now as well as those that are under development and that are expected to be available commercially in the near future”. Its key takeaways are as follows:
- Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that contribute to attaining carbon neutrality. Decarbonising energy is a significant undertaking that requires the use of all available low-carbon technologies and world climate objectives will not be met without nuclear technologies.
- Beyond existing large-scale nuclear reactors, nuclear power continues to evolve with new technologies including small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced reactors, which can complement established large-scale reactors and open new markets, including district heating, high-temperature process heat and hydrogen production. SMRs could also provide electricity for small grids or remote locations and will improve the integration of variable renewable energy sources.
- In many parts of the world, nuclear power plants are a cost-competitive option for generating electricity. In other places, while new NPPs may be more expensive than alternatives on a levelised cost basis, they offer resilience and environmental benefits that justify these investments while the nuclear industry has learned from recent projects to reduce construction costs.
- Policy-makers who wish to meet climate and sustainable development objectives using nuclear power should:
- Establish a level playing field for all low-carbon technologies including nuclear power.
- Provide positive, long-term policy signals for new nuclear development to enable investment in new nuclear projects and support stable supply chains.
- Accelerate the development and deployment of SMRs and advanced reactor technologies by offering technical, financial and regulatory support and promoting international harmonisation of licensing frameworks.
- Secure the long-term operation of existing NPPs to avoid unnecessary CO2 emissions and decrease the costs of the energy transition. This must respect safety and economic parameters.
- Assess the merits of low-cost financing of nuclear power projects with green finance classifications based on scientific and technology-neutral methodologies. Banks and international finance institutions should consider nuclear projects part of their sustainable lending activities.
- Recognise that nuclear power as a source of low-carbon energy and heat that can help decarbonise energy systems.
- Develop policies that instil confidence and facilitate wider application of nuclear to decarbonise electricity and energy intensive industries.
- Develop financing frameworks and private investment in support of new nuclear power projects.
- Nuclear power plants can produce reliable 24/7 electricity or operate flexibly as required.
- High-temperature heat from NPPs can be transformative in decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors.
- NPPs are a proven source of heat for urban district heating that have operated successfully in a number of countries.
- Nuclear power can be used to produce low-carbon hydrogen via several processes: low-temperature electrolysis (nuclear electricity); steam electrolysis (nuclear heat and electricity); thermochemical process (nuclear heat at above 600?).