Is Nuclear Power the Answer to Climate Change?

GS Paper III

News Excerpt:

Nuclear Energy was presented as an important solution to global problems like climate change and energy security in the first-of-its-kind Nuclear Energy Summit that was hosted in Brussels, Belgium.

Nuclear Energy Summit:

  • The summit was organised by The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Brussels.
  • It is being louded as a “landmark initiative” and a “turning point” in the efforts to expand the use of nuclear energy for generating clean electricity.
  • The meeting was not meant to produce any decisions or finalise any agreement. Rather, it was another attempt to build momentum for a greater acceptance of nuclear energy which many countries continue to have apprehensions about.
    • Such apprehensions were aggravated by the Fukushima accident (Japan) in 2011. 
    • The continuing crisis at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the first nuclear facility to have been caught in a dangerous armed conflict, has also been a source of grave concern.
  • India also took part in the summit.

IAEA initiatives to promote nuclear power:

  • IAEA has been very active in the last few years in highlighting the potential of nuclear power to accelerate the clean energy transition that the world so desperately needs to achieve its climate change goals.
    • It is an intergovernmental organisation that works for the safe and peaceful use of nuclear science and technology,
  • The IAEA has launched an ‘Atoms4Climate’ initiative to talk about nuclear energy and has begun an engagement with the climate community, especially at the COPs or the annual year-ending climate conferences. 
    • At COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, IAEA set up a pavilion for the first time, and at COP28 in Dubai last year, about 20 countries pledged to work towards tripling global nuclear energy installed capacity by 2050.

COP outreach programme of IAEA:

  • In the last five years, nuclear energy has progressively gained visibility at climate conferences including the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 
  • IAEA has now begun participating in these events as an observer, organising side events and talks on the potential of nuclear energy.
    • The COP 28, which was held in Dubai was particularly eventful for Nuclear Energy. 
    • Representatives from 22 countries, including several that do not currently use nuclear-generated electricity, committed themselves to working together to achieve a tripling of global nuclear energy installed capacity by 2050 from 2020 levels. 
    • This is an extremely ambitious goal, though broadly in line with some pathways projected by the IPCC for achieving global net-zero emission levels by 2050.
    • The final outcome from Dubai formally acknowledged nuclear energy as one of the zero, or low-emission technologies, that needed to be accelerated to achieve rapid and deep decarbonisation. 
    • This was the first time that nuclear energy was mentioned in any COP outcome.
    • According to IAEA projections, before the tripling declaration, the total electricity generating capacity of nuclear power was set to grow by 22 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050 from 2020 levels.

Merits of Nuclear power as a clean energy source:

  • Nuclear energy is a clean source of energy with a minimal carbon footprint. There is negligible release of emissions during the electricity generation process.
  • According to IAEA, when we account for activities like reactor construction, uranium mining and enrichment, waste disposal and storage, and other processes – greenhouse gas emissions from Nuclear energy are only in the range of 5 to 6 grams per kilowatt hour. According to IPCC this GHG emission from Nuclear energy is 12 grams per kilowatt hour.
    • This is more than 100 times lower than coal-fired electricity, and about half the average of solar and wind generation.
    • Some independent studies have put the emission from nuclear life cycles at much higher levels, around 50-60 grams per kilowatt-hour in some instances, depending on the processes and energy used for extraction of minerals, construction and other activities. 
    • But in most cases, nuclear power plants are known to have substantially lower carbon footprint than solar or wind projects over their entire life cycle.
  • Nuclear vs Solar and wind energy: The other great advantage of nuclear power is its perennial availability, unlike wind or solar which are season or time-dependent. 
    • It is thus suitable for baseload electricity generation that solar or wind projects are unable to do unless breakthroughs in battery storage technologies come along.
  • For these reasons, nuclear energy features prominently in most of the decarbonisation pathways suggested by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and others. 
  • According to the IAEA, nuclear energy is already contributing very significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 
    • Nuclear power generation results in avoiding emissions of more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year.
    • In the last five decades, this has resulted in a cumulative avoidance of about 70 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Poor adoption and growth of Nuclear Power:

  • But despite these advantages, there has been a serious lack of enthusiasm for the accelerated deployment of nuclear energy. 
    • Only 31 countries in the world use nuclear energy for generating electricity. And barely seven more are working towards joining this club.
    • The number of operational nuclear reactors has actually come down in the last 20 years, from 437 in 2003 to 411 now.
    • The average life of these reactors is more than 31 years, which highlights the fact that few new reactors have come onboard in the last decade.
    • The total installed electricity generation capacity has shown only a marginal increase during this period, from about 360 GW in 2003 to 371 GW now. 
  • Nuclear energy accounts for less than 10% of global commercial electricity generation, and its share has been declining for almost three decades now.
  • Reasons:
    • There are safety concerns with respect to nuclear power particularly after the Fukushima accident.
    • Nuclear reactors require high investments and technology base, take years to build, and have to operate under a variety of regulations and constraints, making them unattractive for countries wanting to quickly ramp up their electricity generation in an affordable manner.
      • Nuclear power also is the costliest electricity right now.
    • The kind of technology breakthroughs that have driven down the costs of solar and wind in the last decade, thus enabling rapid adoption, have not happened in the nuclear sector.
      • The much-discussed technology of small modular reactors is far from being mature.
    • It is hurdles like these that have worked against a rapid growth in nuclear energy in the last three decades. 
  • But the climate emergency is creating an opportunity for a greater push for nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy in India:

  • India, which currently has 23 operational nuclear reactors, does acknowledge the role of nuclear energy in its decarbonisation plan and is planning for a rapid expansion in the coming years, even though the share of nuclear energy in electricity generation is likely to remain extremely modest in the foreseeable future.
  • The currently operational reactors have a combined installed electricity generating capacity of 7,480 MW (about 7.5 GW). At least ten more reactors are under construction, and the capacity is supposed to triple to 22,480 MW by 2031-32. 
  • The share of nuclear energy in total electricity generation capacity is just about 3.1%, among the lowest in countries that do use nuclear energy.

Conclusion:

There is a perception that renewables will solve our climate emergency and hunger for sustainable energy. In the short-term, that might be the case. But as our hunger for clean energy increases, the demand cannot be met without getting into nuclear energy in a big way.