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Nuclear energy’s role in the climate crisis and energy security

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars, international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Amidst the intensifying climate crises, the urgency of addressing global challenges through an energy revolution becomes undeniable. This article delves into the intricate connection between the climate emergency, energy dynamics, and the role of nuclear power in this context. A resolute commitment was witnessed at COP27, where 133 nations pledged net-zero emissions, highlighting the determination to cap the temperature increase at 1.5°C. These actions respond to recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warnings stressing the need for urgent greenhouse gas reductions to avert severe consequences.

Within the energy landscape, electricity accounts for a significant 36% of CO2 emissions. As we project a 160% surge in electricity demand by 2050, renewables are expected to drive this growth, yet the challenges of intermittency emphasise the necessity for a diverse energy mix. Here, nuclear power emerges as a promising emission-free solution. Countries like China, South Korea, India, and Japan lead the resurgence of nuclear energy, propelled by advanced reactor designs and robust safety measures.

Nuclear energy’s emission-free characteristics make it a compelling climate change solution. Reactors, through nuclear fission, yield substantial energy without the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. Their reliability enhances energy security by providing stable electricity, irrespective of weather or geopolitical issues.

Existing nuclear infrastructure spans 30 countries with 439 reactors. To meet net-zero goals, expanding nuclear capacity is crucial. Advanced economies extend reactor lifespans, while the Asia-Pacific region, led by China, South Korea, India, and Japan, drives new reactor growth for emission cuts and innovation.

Past challenges prompted safer reactor designs with mechanisms like passive cooling. Stringent regulations ensure safe operation and decommissioning. China’s Hualong One meets global safety standards, South Korea’s APR1400 has enhanced features and is exported, India pursues thorium-based reactors, and Japan prioritises safety and innovation. Asian nations thus lead in the nuclear energy global resurgence.

Establishing public trust through open communication is vital to fostering acceptance of nuclear energy. Lessons from incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima underscore the need for preventative measures, swift response systems, and resilient designs. Japan, after Fukushima, has adopted inclusive public engagement strategies, sharing safety measures, risks, and emergency plans. Collaborative and transparent efforts also encompass sharing safety data globally for mutual knowledge.

In a shifting energy landscape, the significance of energy resilience and stability becomes more apparent. Unlike weather-dependent renewables, nuclear power plants provide unwavering and dependable electricity. This quality positions nuclear energy as a valuable counterpart to intermittent renewables, ensuring a steady energy grid even in adverse weather.

The most compelling feature of nuclear energy lies in its unparalleled ability to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. By producing electricity without carbon dioxide release, nuclear power emerges as a pivotal player in decarbonizing the energy sector. This contribution aligns with global climate commitments like the Paris Agreement, offering a practical route to tackle climate change and mitigate its impacts.

Advancements in nuclear waste disposal and recycling technologies are reshaping how we manage radioactive waste in the nuclear energy sector. Recent progress is transforming our approach to handling this waste, incorporating innovative methods alongside conventional ones.

Recycling technologies, as seen in France’s programme, are focused on extracting valuable materials from spent nuclear fuel for reuse, extending fuel potential and reducing waste. Concurrently, research aims to create durable matrices, like ceramic and glass, to effectively encapsulate radioactive materials, enhancing stability and containment.

Moreover, the safe decommissioning of ageing nuclear reactors is crucial for environmental preservation. Immediate dismantling (DECON) allows rapid site reuse and efficient management of radioactive materials, while deferred dismantling (SAFSTOR/DECON) involves stabilising reactors until radioactivity diminishes. Entombment seals reactors, particularly in challenging locations.

Decommissioning offers environmental benefits by decreasing radioactive releases and lowering accident risks, while also allowing sites to be reclaimed for sustainable use. The nuclear sector’s evolving strategies highlight its dedication to safety and the environment, addressing waste management challenges and moving towards cleaner energy and sustainability.

Nuclear energy is a key player in boosting energy resilience. With the energy sector causing a significant amount of global emissions and its demand set to rise further, decarbonisation is vital. Unlike intermittent renewables, nuclear power offers steady, land-efficient energy. Generating 10% of global electricity, it’s a proven, safe, and zero-carbon option and a primary source of clean power in the US. It’s also crucial for high-temperature industries like steel and cement, aligning with climate goals. Crucially, it is the sole zero-carbon option viable for high-temperature industrial processes like steel and cement production, making it a linchpin in the IPCC’s roadmap to net zero.

The infrastructure for nuclear technology is well-established and accessible. As of May 2023, 436 nuclear reactors operate in 32 countries, with the United States boasting the largest fleet of 93 reactors. Notably, several North American utilities, including Ontario Power Generation, Southern Company, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, have already made commitments to new nuclear projects.

In the Asia-Pacific region, countries are seizing the mantle of leadership in the resurgence of nuclear power. China, South Korea, India, and Japan are embarking on ambitious nuclear projects that emphasise sustainable energy as a linchpin for their growing economies. China’s pioneering efforts in the development of the Hualong One reactor, South Korea’s advancements in the APR1400 reactor, India’s focus on thorium-based reactors, and Japan’s return to nuclear energy with enhanced safety protocols are notable examples. These projects not only contribute to emission reduction goals but also showcase Asia’s technological leadership in the revitalisation of nuclear power. The region’s commitment to innovative nuclear solutions positions it at the forefront of the global energy transition.

Despite its promise, the nuclear industry faces obstacles in realising its potential. Scepticism, opposition, and regulatory complexities hinder new construction. Design intricacies, material availability, skilled workforce, construction efficiency, and risk partnerships challenge expansion. Transformation requires innovation, adaptability, safety, and reliability. Past incidents and misunderstandings have tainted nuclear energy’s image. Clear communication promoting transparency, safety education, and tech advancements is crucial for building trust. Japan’s approach shows dialogue fosters understanding.

In a world grappling with climate and energy concerns, nuclear power is a robust solution. Its low-carbon, reliable nature aids emissions reduction and stable energy supply. Nuclear’s capacity to innovate and prioritise safety shapes a cleaner, more secure future. In a complex energy landscape, nuclear energy’s resurgence showcases human determination for a greener tomorrow.

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars, international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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