Viewpoint: Why we need nuclear power

04 March 2019

Policymakers have unreasonably and unfairly overlooked the role of nuclear energy in the fight against climate change, writes Borislav Boev, a PhD student at D. A. Tsenov Academy of Economics in Bulgaria.

Borislav Boev

Climate change and its effects on Earth continue to be a hot topic in the media these days. A lot of organisations, both international and governmental, claim that they are putting their best efforts into tackling the issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

The German lesson

For the past two decades we’ve seen many plans but few results. Trillions of dollars have been invested into 'clean energy' sources (mainly renewables) but global CO2 emissions are on the rise. Many governments unreasonably and unfairly have forgotten about nuclear energy as a reliable option to address the issue of carbon emissions, which reached a new high in 2018. According to a report released by the Global Carbon Project, global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased by about 2.7%.

From an ecological standpoint, nuclear energy has one of the best emissions profiles of all energy sources. CO2 emissions coming from a modern nuclear power plant are so low that they are virtually non-existent, especially when compared to baseload sources like coal plants. A lot of countries have been ignoring this great advantage of nuclear energy.

Instead of keeping their nuclear power plants as a great non-carbon baseload source, some countries have decided to reduce their share of nuclear power. However, putting renewables and nuclear in the same league, especially when we’re talking about capacity factors, is totally inappropriate.

Yet some countries, like Germany for example, have been doing exactly that. Germany proudly announced its withdrawal from nuclear power and that renewables were to replace it. But instead of reducing carbon emissions and ensuring the stability of the energy mix, Germany has achieved exactly the opposite. Coal use in Germany has been gradually decreasing over last few years. Renewables now account for about 30% of Germany's power mix, but if we take a look at the emissions statistics, not much had changed for the past five years.

Carbon dioxide emitted in 2011 accounted for 761.0 million tonnes and six years later that number was 763.8 million tonnes, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, published in June 2018. These numbers show an actual increase, despite the large investments that have been made in renewables. Renewables definitely have their place in the future power mix but they also need a stable, predictable and non-carbon source of baseload as backup. German winters are not that sunny. Consequently, the country has been relying heavily on coal as backup baseload. So, the variability (and the uncertainty) of renewables makes Germany dependent on coal plants.

The economics of renewables are not looking good for German households either. In 2017, Germans were paying record high electricity tariffs - as much as 28.18 euro cents per kWh, according to Verivox. In 2018, that number reached 30.5 euro cents per kWh, according to Eurostat data. Germany thus has the highest electricity prices in the European Union.

So why is Germany failing to achieve its own climate goals? Why are its carbon emissions on the rise, or at best in stalemate? The main reason is obvious - Germany is not considering nuclear power as an option.

Modern nuclear power technology has everything that is needed - a high-capacity factor (about 90%), almost non-existent carbon dioxide emissions and a better economic profile. Germany’s case proves that turning away from nuclear power leads to a reliance on fossil fuels to fill the gap. This in turn leads to a rise in emissions, despite all the investment in building up a renewable energy portfolio.

Let’s take a look at the second biggest economy in the EU - France, which has the biggest share of nuclear power in its electricity mix - more than 70%. As a result, the French carbon footprint is half that of Germany's. In 2017, France emitted just 320 million tonnes of CO2.

Expansion in Asia

In 2018, the Chinese marked three important milestones as they put the first EPR reactor, designed by France’s Areva, into commercial operation at the Taishan power plant. Westinghouse’s third generation AP1000 was connected to the grid in July at the Sanmen nuclear power plant. And the Chinese didn’t stop there. They signed contracts with another major nuclear player, Russia, as the latter announced its plans to build at least four new VVER reactors in the country. But why is China going nuclear so fast? Reducing carbon emissions, diversifying its energy mix and addressing the growing demand for electricity are the main driving forces. CO2 emissions are on the rise in China, as its economy continues to grow at a fast pace. In 2017, they had reached 9,232 million tonnes, marking a 1.6% year-on-year increase. This issue must be addressed adequately and nuclear power is part of the solution.

But China is not alone and Asia as a whole is going to be the global energy leader since energy demand is projected to double there by 2030. Nuclear power is needed to ensure the stability of energy supplies in the entire region.

Nuclear power is seen as a viable option for another major Asian country, India, which plans to add 21 new reactors to its energy mix. Last year, the country signed an agreement with France's EDF to build six new EPRs. Once built, the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant would be the largest nuclear power plant in the world, with a total net generation capacity of 9990 MWe. Currently, India operates 22 reactors at seven nuclear power plant sites, which have a total installed capacity of 6780 MWe. That's just 3% of India's energy mix, so why is more nuclear needed in India? The reasons are the same as for China.

India’s economy is booming - last year it had become the sixth largest by nominal GDP. Its steady economic growth brings a higher demand for electricity as the industry and manufacturing sectors grow simultaneously. And, just like China, India has a big problem with its emissions profile. In 2018, CO2 emissions rose by 6.3%. If its government’s plans for nuclear expansion materialise, then the Indian energy mix will be a lot cleaner.

Only one conclusion

Turning away from nuclear power is counterproductive. If we really want to address the issue of rising CO2 emissions, then we need to consider nuclear energy. If we want the future energy mix to be sustainable, then nuclear energy is a necessity. It's clear that nuclear power is going to play a major role in energy-hungry regions like Asia.

Nuclear power projects have their challenges, of course, and cost overruns and delays in Europe and the USA have had a negative impact on the industry’s reputation. And yet progress has been made in Asian countries, especially in China, which is the fastest growing nuclear nation in the world.

Nuclear is also a viable option for Western countries, but Europe and the USA are different to China and India. In order to succeed in the Western world, new nuclear power projects must be more carefully planned since much of the financial risk there comes from political uncertainty and unnecessary regulatory obstacles. If these issues can be resolved, then nuclear will be able to reach its full potential and make a comeback on a larger scale.

Borislav Boev, a PhD student at D. A. Tsenov Academy of Economics.

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