Energy Environment 8 July, 2020 12:00 pm   
COMMENTS: Adam Rajewski

Successfull decarbonization is impossible with just one technology

If we want to decarbonize the energy industry all we really need to do is pay for it. There is no way this can be avoided. Today we know that for many countries sticking to one kind of technology does not offer quicker outomes – writes Adam Rajewski from the Warsaw University of Technology.

Source of increased radiation over the Arctic

First of all, the increases in radiation have not been measured. What has been measured is the presence of trace amounts of radioactive isotopes in Finland, Sweden and Norway. Those amounts are completely insufficient to cause a measurable increase in the radioactivity of the background. Considering the kinds of those isotopes, it is believed that their source is a nuclear reactor that is either in operation, in maintenance or in the process of replacing fuel (and that’s what the International Atomic Energy Agency said in its press release). The news published by the CBTCO (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization) pertains to an area between the Danish straits and the White Sea, as well as southern parts of Sweden and Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and bits of north-west Russia. We do not know which reactor is at fault and the possibilities are potentially wide, including research installations, nuclear power plants, nuclear reactors in warships, and even potentially tests of defense systems.

Does nuclear power in Russia pose a threat to the environment?

Today there are no reasons to be fearful about Russia’s civilian nuclear power industry. Just like in other states, it is under international scrutiny and Russian facilities have been working safely for many years without major problems and according to international standards. It is also worth mentioning that Russia still operates 10 reactors that are like the one in Chernobyl, but all of them have been modified long ago, which is why a disaster like the one in Ukraine will not happen again. It also needs to be stressed that even if Russia’s civilian nuclear power industry is responsible for the radioactivity, which at this point cannot be ruled out, nothing indicates that these levels are in any shape or form a threat to the environment. Finally, a more general issue is that the nuclear energy industry in Russia was established, similarly to other places across the world, to complete the country’s energy system based mostly on fossil fuels. If Russia, and earlier the USSR, did not have nuclear power plants, it would have to build power plants that run on coal and gas. Therefore, nuclear power in Russia, and elsewhere, is a friend to the environment, not its enemy.

Is nuclear energy safe in the European Union?

Yes. There is no reason to be afraid of nuclear power plants in the European Union. In reality the nuclear energy industry is a lot safer than, e.g. the hydroelectric power industry, which has a history of catastrophes – both small and large – from the spectacular collapse of the Banqiao Dam in 1975 to the recent events related to technical failures (at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam in 2009, and at US’s Taum Sauk hydroelectric power station in 2005), as well as intentional destruction of dams during wars (DniproGES 1941, Möhne 1943). And yet we are not concerned about dams and we never ask about their safety. I do not want to sound like a scaremonger about hydroelectric power, I just want to highlight the unjustified disproportion in the public discourse. However, if there is a power industry we should be fearful of today that’d be power generation based on fossil fuels. It is most definitely not safe, neither in the short term (because of air pollution), nor in the long-term term (because of its impact on climate change).

How can nuclear energy impact climate policy?

Nuclear energy may help many states to achieve the ambitious goals of climate policy. Rejecting this technology, which is being advocated by some groups today, may seriously undermine our climate efforts, an issue against which the IAEA is warning. Germany is a good example of this problem. Berlin was quick to shut down its nuclear power plants (but kept its coal-fired plants), which to a large extent undermined its efforts to develop renewable energy sources. In result, today the emissions generated by Germany’s power industry are comparable to what they would be if in 1990 the country replaced coal with gas and kept all nuclear facilities, but did not build a single wind turbine or PV panel. This shows how big a potential for reduction was wasted there. On the other hand, nuclear energy is not the humanity’s savior. Nuclear technologies are nothing more and nothing less than one of the many decarbonization tools available today, including renewables. Decarbonization is necessary across the world where 65 percent of power is still generated from fossil fuels and where demand for energy is growing fast, and where the electrification of new segments of the economy (e.g. transport) may be necessary to limit emissions.

Is nuclear power too expensive and inflexible?

Because of the steam cycle, nuclear power plants are not “champions of flexibility” like some gas technologies, but it is a myth that they cannot dynamically change their generation capacity. They can and do in many countries – if they could not, the French power system would not be able to function at all (after all a typical nuclear power plant is nothing more than a submarine’s drive system “adapted for land”). It is true though, that a nuclear power plant is not able to change its output as quickly as, e.g. a wind power plant whose generation depends on the changing wind speed. Therefore, if we theoretically wanted to establish a system based on the wind and on gas, then we would probably need a “safety net” for gas power plants (unless we are talking about a country with large capacities in pumped-storage hydroelectricity). But such a “safety net” is also necessary in systems where there is a large participation of renewable energy sources, but there is no nuclear power. That will be the case at least until we come up with new ways to store energy at a large scale. We should also ask ourselves a broader question: why in such discussions we often assume that if there is a “conflict”, nuclear energy should be flexible and make way for renewable energy sources, if both sources are emissions-free? Today, the answer is that the law requires certain amounts of energy to be produced from renewables to make it easier to invest in those sources. However, there regulations, which were introduced to facilitate investments, may not be here forever.

Constructing a nuclear power plant is not cheap.

Nuclear energy is a large investment that takes decades – currently the projected standard duration of exploiting a nuclear facility is 50 to 60 years. This is one of the biggest obstacles that this sector is facing. This issue is exacerbated by the way the energy market is designed in many places across the world, where long-term investments not only lack support, but are actively made more difficult. However, we should say it loud and clear that protecting the environment is always expensive. If we want to decarbonize the energy sector and do it fast, we simply need o pay for it and there is no way we can miraculously avoid these costs. At the same time, some comparisons show that nuclear power is more expensive than, e.g. wind power, but they are incomplete as they do not take into consideration, e.g. the costs of the operating reserve for wind power plants when they generate less power because the wind is not strong enough. In such cases comparing the prices of 1 MWh from a nuclear and wind power plants is a little like comparing personal delivery to general delivery. At the same time, I do not want to resolve whether nuclear energy in our situation will be cheaper or more expensive, because the cost of energy generation from various sources depends on a number of factors, including, to a large extent, the law – regulations that determine how energy is bought and sold, what are the responsibilities of market participants, what are the taxes and environmental fees, etc. Therefore, we will know what was cheaper post factum – in half a century. However, today we do know that for many countries sticking to one kind of technology – whether nuclear or just RES – does not offer the quickest path to decarbonization.

Edited by Wojciech Jakóbik