When world leaders meet to discuss energy, the environment, and climate change in Paris this November at the United Nation’s Conference of Parties (COP21), they will have a great deal of responsibility, pressure, and criticism heaped upon them by observers, regardless of the language agreed upon by member nations. Political externalities could also lead to no agreement at all – a disastrous result for environmentalists as well as the nuclear power industry which is poised to provide workable solutions to global climate change through existing infrastructure and emerging technologies.

The Energy Information Agency’s projections for reductions in global energy demand and consumption also indicate a relatively dramatic uptake in modern iterations of atomic energy (i.e. smaller, modular reactors powered by a wide variety of fuels),[1] thereby placing a greater strain on the already over-burdened industry, in return demandingan equally concerted investment in advanced nuclear technologies.

The nations of Germany and Japan serve as prime examples of the detriments associated with a shifting away from atomic energy, whilst France is poised to join that group should it move forward with the government’s proposed 33% rollback of the technology’s capacity.[2] Following the Fukushima Disaster, Japan saw its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions skyrocket as the nation replaced its nuclear fleet with coal, natural gas, and biomass-fueled power plants.[3] And when examining emissions data of the currently-ongoing removal of nuclear capacity from Germany’s electricity portfolio by 2022,[4] it becomes evident that capacity reductions of atomic power generation in highly industrialized economies cannot take place without drastic increases in GHG emissions.

In recent years, Germans have been rightfully proud of their position as the global leader in the uptake of clean and renewable sources of power,[5] whilst their French neighbors have enjoyed the lowest per capita emissions throughout the EU thanks to the reactors that comprise roughly 75% of the nation’s electrical generation.[6] However, these rankings are precarious, at best, as German renewable subsidies are unsustainable, in the long-run, and the French government is not as amendable to similar energy incentivization. Moreover, the United States is poised to retire more plants than it will open in the coming decades, while planned output increases at reactors across the country are facing the possibility of cancellation for a number of reasons, primarily profitability.[7]

Therefore, it is necessary for the nuclear power industry to assert its ability to quantifiably reduce GHG emissions in developing nations and mitigate projected increases in energy demand in developed economies. For a tremendously advanced segment of the international private sector that has done little to help its public perception,[8] industry leaders and champions could benefit greatly from utilizing the EU-based COP21 forum for emphasizing the industry’s role in achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in regards to international climate change regulations.

The incentivization of and the recent developments in fossil fuel exploration technologies in the United States has been a tremendous boon for the nation’s economy and energy security, but in order to bolster and sustain growth in both arenas, the U.S. must maintain its installed nuclear capacity, simultaneouslygrowing its share of advanced reactors for baseload electricity production. Several areas must be addressed, however, in order to ensure this takes place – atomic energy must be presented in a factual and direct fashion to constituencies in non-nuclear marketplaces while promoting the re-regulation of the technology in nuclear nations to account for advancements in safety and reliability.

Although German CO2 emissions levels trended downwards for the first time in three years,[9] it has seen a dramatic uptick in national coal consumption due to increases in domestic demand after decommissioning several nuclear plants in the nation.[10] This model is incapable of reducing overall GHG emissions; France is poised to see similar results even if they choose to supplant nuclear capacity with natural gas-fired facilities, even when juxtaposed to coal-based alternatives. Fortunately for the industry, several wealthy nations are constructing nuclear power capabilities such as the UAE, Iran, and Turkey. Moreover, a handful of developing nations are exploring the process, as well (e.g. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand).[11] Although several new installations have been hotly contested over accusations of political conflicts of interest[12] while others have been decried as fiscally irresponsible,[13] there are a number of examples where nations have secured their energy supply for a great duration whilst reducing their contributions to climate-altering GHG emissions.[14]

Electricity production via nuclear fission is not suitable for every nation, as there are numerous barriers-to-entry, including upfront costs and the and the storage of the waste; however, its tremendous capacity factor and GHG-free operational emissions coupled with the generation and/or maintenance of a highly skilled workforce dictates the necessity of expanding the global nuclear portfolio. The benefits of doing so would stretch far beyond environmental remediation – energy security and diplomatic relationships can also be strengthened in the process.

The progress seen in the uptake of renewables, energy efficiency measures, and demand-side management programming is encouraging but it will not be enough to have a meaningful impact on global climate change without considerable advancements in energy storage capacity or a baseload generation companion to offset intermittency. These concerns can be addressed for generations should new technologies such as thorium[15] and molten salt reactors[16] enter the nuclear portfolio.

Advancements must come swiftly in transforming the global energy composition in order to prevent climate-related disasters nd the nuclear industry has the ability to contribute positively to this endeavor, beginning with its own reformation; a challenging proposition considering governmental barriers, public perception of the technology, and the many missteps nuclear’s champions have taken. Promoting the maintenance of existing nuclear installations must be emphasized alongside the development of advanced technologies as the SDGs nor a possible COP21 agreement will be the end-all be-all of climate change pacts. But the latter of the two has the ability to shape a great deal of the public discourse surrounding personal, commercial, and industrial energy consumption in the years to come and nuclear energy must be a major part of all conversations..

*Addendum: This article was authored prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris on 11.13.15.

Photo attributed to: Stefan Kühn

[1] World Energy Outlook 2014 – Executive Summary

[2] Tale of woe in French nuclear sector

[3] Japan’s Fiscal ’13 greenhouse gas emissions worst on record

[4] German coal compromise leaves doubts over climate goal

[5] Germany Just Got 78 Percent Of Its Electricity From Renewable Sources

[6] Nuclear Power in France

[7] Nuclear Power in the USA

[8] Perspective on Public Opinion

[9] German CO2 emissions fall for first time in three years

[10] The burning issue of German coal

[11] Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries

[12] Russia: Exporting Influence, One Nuclear Reactor at a Time

[13] Is America Walking Away From Nuclear Power?

[14] Energy Balances and CO2 Implications

[15] Thorium

[16] Molten Salt Reactors

Resources:


 

Tanner Kenney was a Desk Associate and Features Producer for CBS Radio News where he researched and booked foreign correspondents and produced podcasts such as the CBS World News Roundup and 60 Minutes. He is a candidate for M.S. in Global Affairs at New York University.

Written by Tanner Kenney