Nuclear-based energy could mitigate carbon emissions

ByHindustan Times
Aug 23, 2023 03:44 PM IST

This article is authored by Mehdi Hussain, doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Extreme events due to the climate crisis have severe impacts on health, socio-economic development, and environment globally. This summer Europe faced record-breaking heatwaves causing 15,000 deaths across France, the United Kingdom (UK), Portugal, Spain, and Germany, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). In East Africa, food insecurity hit the poor region affecting 20 million people as of January 2023. Globally, the reported losses due to 11,000 disasters associated with weather, climate, and water during the 50-year period from 1970-2019 constitute over 2 million deaths and USD 3.64 trillion, according to the WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes. During this period, the largest human losses were caused by droughts (650,000 deaths), storms (577,232 deaths), floods (58,700 deaths), and extreme temperature (55,736 deaths).

Earth (Pixabay)
Earth (Pixabay)

Nuclear power, like other renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, produces less carbon footprints. The 2018 report, Global Warming of 1.5 ℃ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts an increase in the share of 34-71% of nuclear power in the global energy basket by 2050 in its energy consumption scenario for the pathways compatible with 1.5℃. In the last 50 years, it has reduced about 70 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 emissions globally, however, concentrated in the advanced and emerging markets & developing economies (EMDEs). In 2019, a total of 33 Gt of global CO2 emissions got reduced as a result of the energy mix of renewables, fuel switching from coal to gas and increased nuclear power generation, according to IAEA. It has strengthened itself as an alternative energy to coal, natural gas, and oil—which can stabilise energy demand and supply.

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EMDEs are increasingly pushing their nuclear capacity limit relative to other sources of energy. China and India are leading the path by reducing about 9 Gt of Carbon emissions to date, according to International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2022, the EMDEs added 60% of 1.5 GW of nuclear capacity globally. China, having completed two nuclear reactors in 2022, comes out on the top with the most addition to the nuclear capacity for any country. It also started construction on five reactors. Further progress elsewhere in this direction becomes visible with the completion of nuclear power projects in Finland, South Korea, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2022, Egypt started construction on two reactors, and Turkey on one reactor.

The World Nuclear Association argues that energy sector continues to produce more CO2 emissions which saw an increase by more than 40% since 2000 reaching over 33 billion tonnes in 2018. It, further, states that the new sources of renewable energy like wind and solar have also been added to the energy basket during the past 20 years, but the dependency on fossil fuels continues. Thus, about 80% of mitigation efforts to be implemented by 2030 in the energy sector could be located in the power sector, according to IAEA. Nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source due to which 30 nuclear countries together have about 19% less than the global average of carbon footprint of electricity generation.

Nuclear power contributes significantly to decarbonisation of the power sector. Given its potential, nuclear power can help achieve the target of limiting global temperatures to below 1.5℃. It contributes about 10% of electricity production globally, which is almost 20% in the developed countries.

In the build-up to achieve net zero emissions by 2030, the world needs a yearly average growth of about 15 GW of nuclear energy. It means the share of nuclear power in electricity generation should be around 10%. Further, the required investment to pull this through is $125 billion per year, so far it has only reached $40 billion averaging annually for the 2016-2022 period, according to the IEA.

Recent technological advancements have improved the nuclear capacity of countries. The IEA states that the innovation in nuclear power technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs) is ground-breaking. SMR is affordable, easier, and faster to build with a capacity to generate below 300 MW per reactor, unlike the 1,000 MW conventional reactors. It also believes that SMRs can help achieve decarbonise power systems in addition to solar and wind energy sources. Its immense potential has improved the investment climate also. International collective efforts of the United States (US), Japan, Korea and the UAE at the G7 Summit in 2023 generated a public-private investment of about $275 million for the development of an SMR project in Romania. The US is projected to complete its first SMR in 2030. Other developments include France’s commitment to the development of SMR technologies to be supported by a fund of about one billion euros; a US-Ukraine cooperation agreement to develop 20 SMRs in Ukraine by 2029; Indonesia’s aim to start an SMR plant by 2028; Japan, having faced the 2011 Fukushima disaster, has seen investments to develop a molten salt reactor nuclear plant with an expectation to commercialise it by early 2030s; Canada’s $30 million funding for its SMR research on safe SMR waste management; and, China’s advanced high-temperature gas-cooled reactor reaching full-operation in 2022.

At the policy front, countries are concerned about energy security due to vulnerable global geopolitics like the Ukraine-Russia war. The war worsened the global energy markets forcing countries to depend more on coal for power generation. Thus, implications were seen in the attempts of some of the European countries to phase out their dependency on Russian oil; some of these countries decided to import gas from Algeria, Norway, and Azerbaijan; and, the ban imposed by the US and European Union on Russian oil. However, countries with nuclear-powered energy like the US, France, Belgium, Japan, and Korea could bring their nuclear policy changes by extending an extra lifetime to nuclear plants which were slated for de-commissioning, as reported by the IEA. Moreover, France, the UK, China, and India have moved for nuclear expansion. They aim to achieve energy security by strengthening their nuclear capacity.

Policy-wise, countries have to reinforce their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) consistent with 1.5℃ pathways under the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Each of the countries with nuclear-powered energy system has to strengthen their commitments to this target and the corresponding implementations to keep the global temperature below 2℃ relative to the pre-industrial level by the end of the century.

This article is authored by Mehdi Hussain, doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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