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Nuclear power in the age of climate change

The IAEA released two reports this month that together capture nuclear power's incongruity: its uncertain economic appeal but relative climate advantages.

The Mühleberg Nuclear Power Plant in Mühleberg, Switzerland
The Mühleberg Nuclear Power Plant in Mühleberg, Switzerland (AN/J. Heilprin)

VIENNA (AN) — The U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency released two reports this month that together capture nuclear power's incongruity. Its economic appeal is uncertain, but it has relative advantages in fighting climate change.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, reported September 10 that the nuclear industry could have a shrinking role as an electricity provider due to its "reduced competitiveness." Nuclear power produced just 10% of the world’s electricity in 2017, and that share is likely to decline further with the closure of aging nuclear plants that cannot compete with lower-cost energy sources.

Then it reported September 14 that the industry could deliver lots of low-carbon power for global economic development that would make a "vital contribution" to fighting climate change. At its annual conference a few days later, the Vienna-based international organization held a scientific forum on how nuclear technology could help people mitigate, monitor and adapt to climate change.

IAEA's Director-General Yukiya Amano said the declining trend in the use of nuclear power may set back the world's efforts to mitigate climate change. But 455 nuclear power reactors remain in operation around the world, and IAEA's projections cover a wide range of economic possibilities.

The picture is further complicated by a debate over safety and environmental concerns with nuclear energy, and by IAEA's roles both as a global watchdog against proliferation of nuclear weapons and as a leading promoter of the peaceful uses of atomic energy. There are risks involved in promoting even its peaceful uses, since the spread of nuclear technology can lead to more nuclear weapons.

U.K.'s Heysham Nuclear Power Station
U.K.'s Heysham Nuclear Power Station (AN/Jim Linwood)

Generating capacity

In one report, IAEA said nuclear power’s share of the world’s power generating mix could shrink overall to just 5.6% in 2050. Cheap natural gas and subsidies for renewable sources of energy undercut the appeal of nuclear growth in many regions of the world. In the near-term, IAEA projected that “ongoing financial uncertainty and declining electricity consumption in some regions will continue to present challenges for capital intensive projects such as nuclear power.”

On the flip side, it said the industry’s prospects could see gains from some “underlying fundamentals of population growth and electricity consumption in the developing world, as well as climate change and air quality concerns, security of energy supply and price volatility of other fuels."

By 2030, North America's nuclear electricity capacity could decrease by almost one-third or just maintain 2017 levels, the IAEA projected. In the United States, a boom in natural gas production flooded markets with a cheap new source of energy, lowering wholesale electricity prices.

Falling costs of wind and solar power and flat electricity demand from less energy use erode nuclear power's competitiveness. Natural gas and renewables replaced most of the generating capacity of five nuclear plants recently closed in California, Florida, Nebraska, New Jersey and Vermont.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, nuclear power's already small role is projected to decrease. In most of Europe, where nations such as Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland plan a gradual phaseout of nuclear power, generating capacity may decline by 30% or slightly increase.

But in Eastern Europe, generating capacity is projected to remain steady or expand by 30%. Across Africa, generating capacity is projected to remain steady or possibly expand. And throughout most of Asia, generating capacity also is expected to increase significantly or continue to grow.

The projections cover electricity that is either available or is currently supplied to the grid.

Climate advantages

In another report, IAEA said nuclear power could help fulfill the 2015 Paris Agreement. Delegates from almost 200 nations met in the French capital and pledged to stop temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or as close to 1.5 degrees as possible.

Leading scientists and a major United Nations study indicated this target already is unattainable, prompting U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to sound the alarm this month that the world is on a "path of suicidal emissions."

The London-based World Nuclear Association, representing the global nuclear industry, criticized Guterres by saying that he "called for the world to avoid the disastrous consequences of runaway climate change, but failed to recognize nuclear energy as a vital component needed to achieve this."

IAEA said the world now gets 70% of its electricity from burning fossil fuels, but by 2050 the world will need to radically shift and get 80% of its electricity from low-carbon sources to make it possible for nations to meet their emissions-cutting targets under the Paris accord.

For the IAEA, that means it will almost certainly be necessary to ramp up the use of nuclear power, especially since global electricity demand is expected to almost double by 2050.

“This scenario requires a significant scaling up of all clean, low-carbon technologies such as nuclear power, with electricity demand expected to rise sharply in the coming years as countries need more power for development,” said one of the IAEA's six deputy directors-general, Mikhail Chudakov.

“If nuclear power deployment doesn’t expand in line with this scenario, the other technologies may not fill the gap — and we may not meet our climate targets," he said.

At IAEA's scientific forum, another deputy director-general, Aldo Malavasi, said in a speech on behalf of Amano that nuclear technology is helping countries to adapt to water scarcity, land degradation and an increase in animal diseases and insect pests.

Plant breeding techniques that use radiation have helped countries develop and grow new varieties of crops like rice and barley, he said, while a form of sterilization for harmful insect pests that uses radiation helped combat Zika virus in Brazil and control Mediterranean fruit flies in Morocco.

"The use of nuclear power reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 2 gigatons per year. That is the equivalent of taking more than 400 million cars off the road — every year," he said. "In my opinion, it will be difficult for the world to meet the challenges of securing sufficient energy, and to achieve the Paris goal of limiting the average global temperature increase to 2 degrees centigrade, without making more use of nuclear power."

Nuclear safety

The IAEA works to promote nuclear safety and security. But its codes of practice for nuclear plants are strictly voluntary and it cannot impose mandatory safety standards on nations.

The world's worst nuclear accident in 1986 highlighted the dangers. Thirty workers died from the explosion or acute radiation sickness after a reactor at the Chernobyl plant exploded in what was then the Soviet Union. The World Health Organization estimated more than 9,000 people could die of cancer and leukemia in contaminated areas of what is now Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Greenpeace put the eventual death toll at 93,000. Millions were left to live on contaminated land.

The Fukushima meltdown in Japan in 2011 occurred after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused a total power failure and the nuclear plant’s cooling systems shut down, leaking radioactive material. An estimated 18,500 were killed or went missing after the earthquake and tsunami, while another 160,000 were displaced along the northeast coast of Japan.

It will take decades to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, faces lawsuits. The Japanese government acknowledged for the first time this month that a plant worker died of lung cancer from radiation exposure. The government already compensated four other workers who developed leukemia and thyroid cancers from radiation.

Environmental concerns

Though nuclear reactors do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide while they are operating, the processes of mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel use large amounts of energy. The huge amounts of metal and concrete needed to build the plants also take a lot of energy to make.

The main environmental concerns with nuclear power have to do with the uranium mill tailings, used reactor fuel and other radioactive wastes that it creates. All of these can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years.

Radioactive wastes are classified as low-level or high-level waste, depending on the level of radioactivity. Uranium mill tailings can be radioactive at levels just above what is naturally occurring. But they contain radium, which decays to produce radon, a radioactive gas. For its disposal, that requires a sealed barrier, protected by a cover of soil, rocks or other materials.

The radioactivity of nuclear waste decreases over time due to decay, and the amount of time it takes for radioactivity to decrease to half its original level is called the radioactive half-life. Radioactive waste with a short half-life is often stored temporarily before disposal to cut potential radiation doses to workers. Most nuclear industry waste has a relatively low level of radioactivity.

High-level radioactive waste is irradiated or used nuclear reactor fuel, in a solid pellet form, put within long metal tubes called rods. Used reactor fuel assemblies are highly radioactive and must be stored at first in specially designed pools of water. Decommissioning a nuclear reactor also involves the cleanup of radioactively contaminated plant systems, structures and fuel removal.

Potential conflicts

IAEA's Incident and Trafficking Database, which is updated with information voluntarily provided by some of the U.N. agency's 170 member nations, indicates that in 2016 there were 186 incidents in 34 nations that involved illicit trafficking and other unauthorized activities with nuclear and other radioactive materials. As of the end of 2016, 134 nations were providing information to the database.

The number of reported incidents for trafficking or malicious use declined slightly in recent years, IAEA said last year. Between 1993 and 2016, there were 12 confirmed incidents in this category with highly enriched uranium, two with plutonium and four with plutonium beryllium neutron sources. A few involved seizures of kilogram quantities of potentially weapons-usable material.

IAEA's dual roles as a global watchdog and as a promoter of nuclear technology carries risks, since the spread of technology can aid weapon-making — as illustrated by the recent case of three Swiss engineers once suspected of giving nuclear weapons technology to a rogue network in Pakistan.

In a case involving CIA ties, shredded documents and national security implications, two Swiss brothers, Urs and Marco Tinner, and their father, Friedrich, became part of an alleged nuclear smuggling ring. The politically sensitive case slowed down after the Swiss government repeatedly ordered evidence destroyed in the case, allegedly under pressure from senior U.S. officials.

The Tinners were suspected of links to the then-nuclear smuggling network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. They allegedly supplied Khan’s black market nuclear network with the technical expertise and equipment used to make gas centrifuges.

Khan sold the centrifuges for secret nuclear weapons programs in countries such as Libya and Iran before his operation was disrupted in 2003. A Swiss court in 2012 accepted a plea bargain that finally brought the long-running case to an end and the defendants paid fines and legal costs but went free, after spending some years in detention.

Industry support

Earlier this month, a U.S. report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the challenge of making deep cuts in carbon emissions to slow or reverse climate change will be more difficult and costly if nuclear energy is not a meaningful part of a global mix of low-carbon energy technologies.

“Our analysis demonstrates that realizing nuclear energy’s potential is essential to achieving a deeply decarbonized energy future in many regions of the world,” said study co-chair and MIT professor Jacopo Buongiorno.

The researchers said changes in reactor construction also will be needed to make safer, more cost-effective reactors. That includes better construction management practices to keep nuclear projects on time and on budget.

Agneta Rising, director general of the World Nuclear Association, or WNA, said the industry trade group believes that nuclear generation capacity will need to be tripled by 2050 to make a meaningful contribution to a worldwide low-carbon energy mix.

"Those countries that have successfully decarbonized already have used nuclear energy. There is no sustainable energy future without nuclear," said Rising. "The large-scale reliable output of nuclear energy enables decarbonization, not only to meet current electricity demand, but also in sectors such as transport and water desalination."