What is the role of nuclear power in energy transition?

What are the arguments for and against the use of nuclear power in enabling a sufficiently fast transition away from fossil fuels and to clean energy? How compelling are they? Should we be building more nuclear power plants?

The benefits of using nuclear energy are clear. Capability to produce dispatchable energy with a small footprint. Emissions from producing power with nuclear energy is on par or even lower than wind power according to the CO2 life cycle assessments (covering whole energy production from mining to decommissioning). The externatilities (meaning unaccounted for environmental damage, illnesses or deaths due to energy production) are lower than for other dispatchable sources. Historically, the rate of decarbonization achieved during the construction of nuclear power plants during the 1970s has not been surpassed by any other low carbon energy source build-ups. These are the reason assessments from international organizations such as IPCC, European Commission and IEA include construction of new nuclear power plants in their energy scenarios.

The main counter-argument nowadays against nuclear has become its cost, as the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) of renewable sources has been falling and in the western world the nuclear projects have had project management issues leading to delays and increases in costs. However, the LCOE is relatively simple metric that does not show the system costs which for variable renewable energy (VRE) sources increase with the VRE fraction. According to most research, if our aim is a fully decarbonized system, the costs of achieving it with solely VRE sources increase a lot if there is no stable clean production forming the basis of the system (see, e.g. this discussion on recent meta study on scenarios). In some countries with favourable geography this can be hydropower. In other places, nuclear energy is the only technologically mature option. It has issues getting “off the ground” in western countries, but the remedies are known and actually relatively simple.

Any prediction of the future is uncertain, and while scenarios and modelling assist in exploring the future trends their results rely heavily on the assumptions used. Nuclear energy is one of the components in electricity system with minimal environmental impacts. There are also other uses for nuclear energy, such as heat production for cities and industry, desalination, marine propulsion, and production of chemicals such as Hydrogen for chemical processes and synthetic fuels. Currently, all of these processes use fossil fuels. For many of these there may be other options, but at the moment none are mature enough that we would know their potential or limitations.

To summarize: if we aim to have a fully decarbonized energy system with currently foreseeable technology, nuclear is essential component. Many arguments to the contrary rely either lower constraints to carbon emissions (such as using natural gas to balance wind power variation) or very wishful thinking on the future technology developments of VRE and energy storage technologies. Globally, we would need to build more nuclear power along with the renewables in order to clean up the electricity supply and remove energy poverty. Also, new applications for hard to decarbonize sectors such as industrial heat should be developed.

As stated above, nuclear energy is one of the clean energy sources besides wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower. The challenge is the high price of nuclear energy versus fossil fuels, and wind and solar power even with their integration costs in certain conditions. But, in order to phase out fossil fuels on a global scale, aggressive investments in all kinds of clean energy sources are needed.

The need of new nuclear capacity should to be analyzed locally, as every country has different possibilities to build renewable energy plants with flexibility solutions, improve energy efficiency etc. Especially countries with fast-growing energy demand should invest in nuclear energy even though it would be more expensive than natural gas, coal or oil, in case it is not possible to satisfy the energy demand with other clean energy sources. Finland together with other western countries with declining, or stable, energy demand might not need more new nuclear capacity, but it would be important to use the existing nuclear power plants as longs as possible to enable time to build wind power, heat pumps, energy storage capacity etc. to phase out fossil fuels. Check our Smart Energy Transition project’s recently published 100% fossil-fuel free scenario for Finland here: http://smartenergytransition.fi/en/finnish-energy-system-can-be-made-100-fossil-fuel-free/

To summarize: on a global scale, new nuclear energy capacity is needed together with massive wind and solar power capacity growth. To enable this development economically, the price of carbon pollution must get higher. The nuclear energy industry together with researchers should quickly develop standardized nuclear energy production units and radioactive waste treatment methods in order to reduce nuclear energy costs and make the building processes faster.

Karoliina Auvinen, Aalto University

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