Messianic Perry preaches nuclear to sceptical Europeans

US energy secretary Rick Perry speaks at the first EU-US high-level forum on small modular reactors, Brussels, 21 October 2019. [European Union, 2019]

Small nuclear reactors can help “vulnerable nations take control of their destinies,” the US energy secretary said in Brussels today (21 October), claiming that small off-grid nuclear plants can bring electricity to poor nations and “disperse the darkness” around the globe.

Countries with nuclear power “can’t be controlled by other countries wielding energy as a geopolitical weapon”, US Secretary of State Rick Perry said in Brussels as he addressed a forum of policymakers and industry representatives from both sides of the Atlantic.

Nuclear power helps “vulnerable nations take control of their destinies,” Perry claimed, arguing that “energy security also bolsters national security”.

Perry’s comments on energy independence echoed declarations made earlier this yearn when he  described American LNG exports to Europe as “freedom gas”.

‘Freedom gas’: US opens LNG floodgates to Europe

US energy secretary Rick Perry will sign two export orders for liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Brussels today (2 May), in a move officials said will double America’s export capacity to Europe to 112 billion cubic meters per year as of 2020.

Today’s remarks, made in Brussels at the first EU-US high-level forum on small modular reactors, were again chiefly aimed at Eastern European countries, which have repeatedly complained about Russian interference in national politics, using gas as a lever.

Nuclear is a divise topic in Europe. While countries like France opted for it decades ago, others like Germany and Austria are strongly opposed.

“Nuclear energy is neither safe and sustainable nor cost-effective,” said German State Secretary for Energy, Andreas Feicht, during a recent meeting of EU energy ministers,  firmly rejecting suggestions that EU money might be used to extend the lifetime of existing nuclear plants.

But Perry’s message was broader, and was also addressed at developing nations whom he said could benefit from small off-grid nuclear plants.

“Imagine what small modular reactors can do,” Perry said, referring to the vast areas of the globe that are currently “shrouded in darkness” because they have no or little access to electricity.

“Imagine them delivering power everywhere, bringing light to even the smallest villages and far away hamlets dotting the globe,” he continued, adopting a messianic tone.

“We can change that grim reality. We can disperse the darkness. We can bring life-changing power to these people,” Perry added, referring to small reactors that can be installed in remote places and operated independently from the electricity grid.

‘Climate change calls for drastic measures’: Cañete

Small modular reactors vary in size from less than 20 megawatts (MW) up to 100 MW. They can be used for power generation, but also for various industrial uses, such as process heat and desalination, according to a joint EU-US memo circulated ahead of today’s forum.

Small modular reactors are more cost efficient and carry lower financial risks than larger ones, said EU climate chief Miguel Arias Cañete during opening remarks made at the forum. Nuclear power can also provide a much needed source of low-carbon electricity to the countries that chose to adopt it.

“Climate change calls for drastic measures,” Cañete said, pointing out that nuclear will continue to play a role in Europe’s mix of low-carbon energy technologies for decades to come.

“It is therefore time, given also the global public pressure to reduce emissions, to bring small modular reactors under the spotlight,” he said, insisting on the need for regulation to ensure safety.

“Safety and security must be carefully assessed,” Cañete said, underlining the need to ensure the “physical security” of small nuclear plants to prevent proliferation.

Other issues are business-related, he said, and relate to areas like licensing processes when the technology is exported. Indeed, there are approximately 30 different SMR technologies available across the world, said William D. Magwood, Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

Nuclear agency chief: Small reactors ‘might be a game-changer’ for Europe

The political climate for nuclear energy is “not very positive” in Europe, admits William D. Magwood, and the industry is currently shifting towards Russia and Asia as a result. But the emergence of small modular reactors (SMR) built in factories might slow down the process, he argues.

‘Complete disconnect’ between words and action on climate change: IEA

But perhaps the most convincing supporter of nuclear power at the forum was Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

According to Birol, nuclear will remain relevant in the coming years for “two strategic reasons” – energy security and emissions reduction.

Despite growing international consensus on climate change, global warming “emissions are still increasing,” Birol said. And as demand for energy worldwide continues to grow, renewables are failing to reverse the dominance of fossil fuels in the electricity mix, he warned.

“On climate change, there is a growing disconnect between the political statements – targets, reports and so on – and what is happening in real life. A complete disconnect.”

Twenty years ago, about 63% of the world’s electricity was generated from fossil fuels, with 37% coming from low-carbon sources such as renewables and nuclear. And that percentage has remained unchanged twenty years after, Birol said.

“No change whatsoever. This is very depressing from a climate change point of view,” Birol said, adding it is “extremely important” to recognise nuclear is needed alongside renewables to deliver low-carbon energy.

“If you lose nuclear, it could be too late” for climate change, Birol warned.  “We still need nuclear very badly,” he said, adding that extending the life of existing nuclear plants is “by far the cheapest of clean energy technologies”.

Poland firms up gas, nuclear plans to fill green power gap

Replacing Poland’s obsolete coal power fleet is a top political priority for the country, both for environmental and energy security reasons. But even as it steps up renewable energy plans, Warsaw is also pushing hard for new gas and nuclear plants to fill in the gap.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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