A new sense of urgency for new nuclear

25 August 2022

With the evidence of the catastrophic impact of global warming mounting by the day, momentum is building for the rapid development of more nuclear capacity.

The unprecedented heatwave that recently swept across Europe with record high temperatures is just that, unprecedented. As a manifestation of climate change it’s a stark reminder that average global air temperatures have already increased by around 1°C since the 1900s. Over half of this increase has occurred since the 1970s alone, according to the UK’s Royal Society.

With Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy baking and even the UK recording temperatures of more than 40°C, the conditions have seen wildfires running amok throughout Europe. Sadly, this isn’t even the first heatwave recorded this year. India and Pakistan have already seen record- breaking temperatures of close to 50°C and much of the Southwestern USA is in dire straits with high temperatures, long-standing drought conditions and raging wildfires sweeping the country. The really sad truth is that when we hit record-breaking temperatures today, they are extremely unlikely to last much past the following summer before the records are smashed once more. Despite decades of warnings, it seems that in just a few short years we have gone from climate concern to climate catastrophe.

It’s clearly imperative to ramp up sustainable and low-carbon energy capacity. However, it’s also clear that deployment of wind and solar is far below the level needed to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C. According to recent analysis from the energy think tank Ember, annual wind and solar deployments need to reach 76 GW in 2026 in Europe alone to meet that 1.5°C goal. Their projections indicate that Europe will only achieve installation rates of around half that.

At the same time as temperatures are soaring and renewable deployments are lagging behind target, our current approach to energy is at risk as geopolitical forces impinge on our security of supply. Russia is already flexing its energy muscles and it’s not necessarily an idle threat that it may significantly curtail gas supplies to Europe this winter, tipping some economies into recession. Recognising that energy shortages have the very real potential for huge economic disruption, the leaders of the European Union are urging member states to cut gas consumption by 15% between 1 August and 31 March 2023 covering the whole of the winter peak demand season. “Russia is using energy as a weapon,” the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, reportedly said when making the announcement. The impact of these voluntary reductions is expected to reduce the need for obligatory restrictions in gas supplies but will certainly be felt even ahead of winter.

Evidently, we need to develop sustainable alternatives to gas and other fossil fuels and simultaneously ensure on-going security of supply. And we need achieve that dual objective urgently. For nuclear the challenge isn’t to develop low-carbon, secure, and reliable energy, we already know it can achieve that. The decision by the European Parliament to include nuclear energy in the EU’s green taxonomy is a clear validation.

The issue is bringing new capacity to the table in an appropriate time frame. With their standardised design ethos and production-line approach to manufacturing processes, SMRs offer much hope for rapid nuclear deployment, but the industry also needs to vigorously adopt this philosophy when it comes to larger units too. Embracing standardised and serial manufacturing and installation could potentially see new nuclear capacity come on-line far more quickly than has previously been the case. It’s vital that the industry and regulatory authorities collaborate to accelerate this process so that nuclear power can help meet our core energy objectives before it’s too late. The clock is ticking.

Today it is broadly accepted that nuclear power has a role to play in solving the energy ‘trilemma’ of sourcing the cheap, abundant and clean energy that we all need. The real question isn’t if, it’s when?

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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