Nuclear energy is part of the solution to climate change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Nuclear power plant, Uentrop. Germany, 2007. [IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

Nuclear energy can be considered a low carbon energy source which provides a solution to the challenge of meeting the increasing global demand for electricity, writes Jean-Pol Poncelet.

Jean-Pol Poncelet is Director General of FORATOM

In December 2015, France will host the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This event has given rise to the ambitious hope that the 196 parties to the Convention will reach a worldwide agreement on tackling climate change. With its wide-reaching scope and the number of signatories involved, such an agreement should build upon the dynamics started by the Kyoto Protocol in 1992.

Nuclear energy will be represented at COP21 through a grassroots initiative calledNuclear for Climate”, which brings together more than 140 associations and technical societies.

The initiative will demonstrate how nuclear energy, as a low carbon technology, can help lower greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change.

In recent decades, human activity has noticeably changed the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. A regular increase in the level of greenhouse gases (GHG), notably carbon dioxide (CO2) resulting from the combustion of fossil energy sources, has amplified the extent of this change.

As a result, the average temperature of the planet has been affected and is projected to continue increasing, creating urgency in the need to act. Even though certain aspects of these phenomena remain somewhat controversial, climate change is taking place and its consequences are already visible. The effects are accelerating as the world’s population is rising, the global economy keeps growing and energy demand increases. The required reduction in GHG emissions will only be achieved through the application of balanced international agreements that engage all interested parties.

The evolution of society towards a low carbon world is a very ambitious aspiration – one that requires the careful consideration of all possible solutions and the avoidance of all ideologically or doctrinally driven decisions. What is needed now is to prepare for the post-2020 era and make sure the tools and objectives evolve to address the growing challenge. This is the main goal of the Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015.

Nuclear power is a low carbon energy source whose lifecycle emissions are comparable to those of renewable energy sources. According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear power emits, on average, 15 g CO2/kWh, which is about the same as wind energy technology. This is 30 times less than natural gas, 65 times less than coal and three times less than solar photovoltaics.

In the European Union, nuclear power technology provides 27% of Europe’s electricity and accounts for 53% of its overall low carbon power. 14 member states already use nuclear energy to keep their emissions down. Nuclear energy is, and will remain, an important part of the low carbon energy mix.

In its 5th Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has acknowledged that nuclear energy offers the advantage of generating low carbon electricity: “the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions per kilowatt-hour from nuclear power plants are two orders of magnitude lower than those of fossil-fuelled electricity generation and comparable to most renewables”. 

In the same report, the IPCC includes nuclear energy among the low carbon energy sources which, should their usage triple or quadruple by 2050, would help limit the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere, keeping the global increase in temperatures to 2°C. For this to happen, 80% of global electricity will need to be produced using these low carbon technologies. This is an objective that all interested parties share.

So, nuclear energy can be considered as a low carbon energy source which provides a solution to the challenge of meeting the continuously increasing global demand for electricity whilst fulfilling obligations and objectives under global climate change agreements. All countries should have the right to choose nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet their national clean energy objectives. Such a choice should not be restricted by internationally signed Conventions or Protocols.

And yet that is precisely what is happening: the measures agreed in Marrakech in 2001 (at COP7) exclude large-scale hydro-electric projects and nuclear technologies from benefiting from the support mechanisms that were established under the Kyoto Protocol. 

Future tools and methods for the decarbonisation of the global economy have yet to be agreed. It is imperative that the production of electricity using nuclear energy be included in the financial mechanisms that will be introduced to support the further development of low carbon energy sources. The world needs all low carbon energy sources to prosper and to give developing nations the chance to provide electricity to their citizens.

It is high time for decision-makers to commit to an international, binding agreement that is both global and balanced and which will serve as a basis for a low carbon society where nuclear energy contributes to avoiding the devastating effects of climate change.

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