This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their 5th assessment of the science of climate change. The message was stark – there is near complete certainty in the scientific community that we are contributing to elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that those higher concentrations are going to lead to higher global average temperatures threatening the stability of our climate.
Already we have witnessed an average increase of almost 1 degree, unevenly spread across the globe. For the first time this year, in attempting to explain the problem, the IPCC set out what it considers to be the limit for how much we can emit before we lose the chance of limiting average temperature increases to less than 2 degrees forever.
The IPCC expressed this limit as a total global carbon budget of 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. Since the industrial revolution we have used up around half of this budget, and at current global emissions rates we will use up the remainder before 2040. Reader, hopefully that is within your lifetime, but it is certainly well within the expected life time of our children. This means that within the next 25 years or so if we are to stay within these limits – and these only give a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees – we will have to have completely decarbonised our global energy system.
This is a significant challenge, and one that requires us to urgently deploy substantial volumes of all known low carbon energy technologies and to rapidly develop the new ones that we know engineers can bring to market with sufficient incentives and support from policy makers.
Nuclear new build undoubtedly has an important role to play. However, it is scarcely formally mentioned currently in climate discussions at an EU level and in the UN. Energy Ministers within many countries including the UK, China, and India agree that nuclear is needed going forward, but there is still a nervousness when it comes to international climate negotiations about expressly stating this.
In the EU, we know that this is partly the result of public opposition – especially in Germany and Austria where there are powerful anti nuclear lobbies. But encouragingly recently a group of 10 EU member states led by the Czech Republic wrote to the outgoing European Energy Commissioner to call for nuclear to be treated on a level playing with other low carbon technologies. A new Commission is in the process of being established and with Poland’s Prime Minister assuming the role of President of the European Council and a new Spanish Energy and Climate Commissioner we might see some changes. Certainly Poland was a signatory to the letter but sadly Spain was not.
The reason why we should look again at nuclear are clear. The EU’s electricity comes in at around 300g/kwh thanks to around 30% of its demand being met by nuclear and the two countries in the EU who have most rapidly decarbonised their economy are France and Sweden, both using substantial amounts of nuclear. Denmark and Germany on the other hand have so far had a more limited impact with their recent investment in renewables.
The UK with its ‘all of the above’ energy policy is looking to join France in reaching a carbon intensity of between 50-100g CO2/kWh by 2030 but it will need to hold on to and expand its current nuclear capacity to do so.
The proposed reactor at Hinkley Point C is a vast project with a budget to match. 3.2 GW of clean power is almost certainly worth the wait – to match its output with wind would require, depending on assumptions around 3-6000 turbines – or expressed another way increasing by 75% the proposed 10GW target for offshore wind by 2020.
Depending on the outcome of this 3 way negotiation between EDF, the UK government and the European Commission, at least two other large scale projects are waiting in the wings with their proposals. If all go ahead as planned then we can expect to maintain our existing nuclear capacity.
But can we expand nuclear’s role? Can we use nuclear to help fully decarbonise electricity and then start to make in-roads in to emissions from transport and heat?
This is a key question – a lot depends on whether any progress can be made on reducing the costs of nuclear power – wind and solar may not be despatchable when we want them, but they have shown impressive abilities to reduce costs with deployment. There has been no such breakthrough in nuclear where, if anything, costs seem to rise inexorably over the years.
A new way
I remain convinced that were we to start with a blank sheet of paper to design the optimal civilian energy reactor we would be deploying very different reactors to those that we have come to equate with nuclear power today.
By focusing on maximising passive safety, eliminating risk of explosion through loss of coolant accidents and reducing the waste management problem, I am convinced we could arrive at a reactor that has a very different cost profile – and potentially also a much wider application: high temperature reactors for industrial applications may well prove to be a new and important market as the world seeks to fully decarbonise the economy.
Sadly over the last few decades R&D in nuclear fission has fallen away to almost nothing in the UK. Thanks to a House of Lords report which decried this situation in no uncertain terms, there has been something of a reversal of fortune but the sums involved are still so small as to be almost insignificant and there are lots of different views on how best to spend what little R&D money is being made available.
This situation saddens me and as a policy maker I believe we need to think again about how we can direct more money into nuclear fission R&D so that we can design nuclear reactors up to the challenges of the 21st century. Perhaps then nuclear power can begin to take its rightful place in climate negotiations as a solution for rapidly decarbonising and providing access to clean energy for all.
– Baroness Bryony Worthington
Adapted from a speech given by Baroness Worthington to the UK Nuclear New Build Congress in September, 2014