The end of shyness

11 January 2022

The COP26 meeting in Glasgow could completely change the debate around nuclear energy, says Jeremy Gordon

Ours is an industry with a high level of awareness of its history and its landmark dates. The year 2021 is sure to be remembered for a long time as a turning point in the political debate around nuclear. After many years of shyness around what nuclear can do, and what it needs to do, the sector finally has the opportunity it has waited for to stand proudly and play its full role.

The pivotal moment in this change has been the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, where for the first time nuclear energy was represented to the proper extent. The major change, compared to previous years, was simply that, as the UN agency for nuclear energy, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) turned up and spoke clearly about what it does and why. This time the IAEA didn’t only talk about agriculture, healthcare and so on, but about nuclear power generation and nuclear’s decisive role in decarbonisation.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi used his position to make himself a figurehead for nuclear and his high profile was received with very little pushback. In an on-stage interview, some Greens in the audience laughed at Grossi when he asserted that nobody was killed by radiation from the Fukushima accident — but the shock of this was soon turned into admiration for his seriousness about the facts that drove his conclusion. And the moderator, too, the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett, was intrigued enough to rethink her assumptions about nuclear energy. The end result was that the Greens looked silly, Grossi looked masterful, and many thousands of people have now read Financial Times articles about how nuclear power is an important decarbonisation tool that we need to think about seriously and without prejudice.

Later on, COP saw a self-congratulatory event on the WWF stand in which Germany, Austria, Denmark and Portugal made it clear that they still don’t like nuclear and they don’t think it should be in the EU Taxonomy of sustainable investments. However, they didn’t have very good reasons for this. 

They said that including nuclear would cause some in the financial community to think less of the Taxonomy. Were they saying that we should look to the moral compass of the investment community to guide global decarbonisation? Or that regulation of environmental matters should be decided by investors and not by science? These arguments do not compare very well with those of ten EU nations who say the opposite about nuclear, and who did so not for reasons of appearance but for reasons of economy, development and decarbonisation. And their opposition looks extremely weak when we compare the positions of the US, which Secretary Graholm described as “All-in for nuclear”; of China, which announced it would deploy as many as 150 new reactors in its push for decarbonisation; of the UK, which is pushing for new large reactors as well as small ones and fusion; and of course of France, where President Macron keeps ratcheting up his nuclear ambitions as Presidential elections approach. The latest is his declaration that France will return to new build. All these pro-nuclear announcements came alongside COP.

It has become abundantly clear that the anti-nuclear dam erected by Germany and held together by a wadding of nuclear-skeptics in top international positions has begun to crumble. Grossi’s appointment as IAEA head to replace Yukiya Amano in 2019 was on a clear pro-nuclear ticket and this shows clearly that Germany et al lost the argument in Vienna at that time. Grossi’s mantra for COP was, “Nuclear is part of the solution, nuclear will be part of the solution, and I am here to make sure of that.”

In turn, Grossi has been able to build on the nuclear positivity that Fatih Birol has brought to the International Energy Agency (IEA) since his appointment in 2015. At COP26 Birol even went as far as to say, “If people believe the IEA’s Net Zero Roadmap, we have to increase the pace of new build of nuclear power plants by a factor of five. And not only in one country. We would like to see new nuclear build from Europe, North America and Asia again.” I’ve never before heard anyone in a position like Birol’s openly calling for new nuclear build in the same way they do for renewable build, but that is where we are now in the debate.

The next crack in the anti-nuclear dam will be a positive decision to include nuclear in the EU Taxonomy, even if it may be labelled as a transition technology or lumped together with gas. This will grant the nuclear sector access to lower cost finance. Countless studies have shown that the cost of capital is the largest single piece of nuclear new-build economics. Access to lower cost capital could cut the cost of new nuclear power plants in half — and the EU has a whole clutch of new-build projects in development to test this theory.

It has been refreshing and a huge relief to see the nuclear sector finally standing up to the policy bullies. And as bullies do, they retreated when challenged. They have not had strong scientific arguments for a long time, the economic arguments are disappearing fast, and as decarbonisation grows more urgent their obstinate denial of nuclear’s role looks more and more anti-human. The battle at the international level has clearly changed character.

None of this means the controversy around nuclear has disappeared. It will always be a controversial and confusing subject. And there are still a lot of highly professional and well organised people holding back our sector. They are certain to regroup at the next COP with a goal to stop nuclear from building momentum. And we would be foolish to underestimate the tacit opposition of people throughout the climate movement who would never admit to being opposed to nuclear, but are much happier discussing its problems that its benefits.

It is essential for those countries wishing to use nuclear to take control of the conversation. They must keep expressing their confidence and clear will for nuclear to be part of their solution and refuse to be swayed from that. 

It is essential that before the next COP meeting the broad coalition of countries wanting nuclear energy to be a viable option express this in the clearest possible terms. We need a declaration of intention from them that will be an order of magnitude larger than the handful of countries marshalled by Germany. It should have at least 50 nations from every continent, every government system and every level of development, saying clearly that nuclear will be integral to their response, they are ready to support it, to fund and to use their sovereign powers to make it happen. This, because joint objectives of climate and development depend on it.

And next time the pro-nuclear announcements by leading countries need to be made at COP itself, not alongside it.

I will admit that over the last few years I had been getting tired. Some friends, and some of the best people I’ve worked with, have been leaving the nuclear industry. One said to me recently “It’s a Groundhog Day discussion that is only ever unlockable by governments saying yes or no.” Well, as we approach the precipice of climate change with precious few technologies available to avoid it, those countries have finally — finally! — said yes. 

I’m hopeful that instead of repeating, the conversation will make some progress. The post-2021 nuclear industry looks interesting and exciting. 

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

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