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The climate crisis could give nuclear power a second wind

The climate crisis could give nuclear power a second wind

Glasgow (AFP) – For more than 20 years, advocates and purveyors for nuclear energy felt excluded from UN climate change conferences.

They were however welcomed with open arms at the COP26 summit currently underway in Glasgow, according the UN’s top nuclear regulator.

Fukushima and Chernobyl were a constant threat.

However, as the climate crisis becomes more severe and the need for a transition away from fossil-fuels becomes more urgent, attitudes could shift.

“Nuclear Energy is part of the solution for global warming, there’s not a way around it,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview.

It already accounts for 25% of the world’s “clean” energy, which is carbon-free. Grossi stated that this COP is the first time it has “had a place at the table”.

“The winds are changing.”

Scientists believe that if global warming is to be stopped at 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, there must be a 50% chance of limiting it to a minimum of 10 years.

However, things are still moving in the wrong directions: A Thursday report stated that emissions in 2021 will reach record levels.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), has warned that they could reach new heights by 2023.

This is helping to refocus our attention on nuclear.

Callum Thomas, head at a recruitment firm for nuclear industry, stated that nuclear was not welcome at the 2015 COP in Paris. He was spotted at COP26 wearing a T-shirt that said “Let’s talk nuclear”.

“There was a belief that it was unnecessary. Many countries are now considering the feasibility, especially given the rise in gas prices.

“Never stop”

Grossi, an Argentine diplomat who took over the IAEA’s helm almost two years ago, has been a tireless advocate of the industry.

He “went in spite the general assumption that nuclear would not be welcomed” at his first COP in Madrid.

In Glasgow, where almost 200 countries are still trying put flesh on the bones of the 2015 Paris Agreement (and he was not the only one), he said that “nuclear isn’t just welcome, it is generating lots of interest”.

Grossi claims that technology can accelerate the transition away fossil fuels and also power research on technologies necessary for adapting to climate changes, such as finding drought-resistant crops or eradicating mosquitoes.

Nuclear reactors that are operational and under construction worldwide, as of March 2021
There are currently three nuclear reactors operating or under construction in the world, as of March 2021 John SAEKI AFP/File

He admits that it comes with serious risks.

After an earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan experienced three reactor meltdowns that shook up confidence in nuclear.

The industry is still looking for a way to dispose off nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands upon thousands of years.

Grossi said that these issues are not invalidating, arguing instead that the technology has statistically fewer negative effects than other forms of energy.

It could also serve as a complement to renewables.

He said, “Nuclear energy continues on and on for the whole year, it never ceases,”

Despite the long construction times, many argue it is too late in order to build enough nuclear power to fight global warming.

Grossi said that he believes that part of the solution lies with keeping existing reactors in operation.

Reactors 100 years old?

He said that many power plants with a 40-year lifespan are now licensed for 60 year under strict safety standards overseen by the IAEA.

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“What could be more efficient that a facility you build that provides energy for nearly 100 years?” He said.

He acknowledged that plants that run so long might be a “bit provocation”.

“But it could still be possible.”

The IEA considers all non-carbon sources when estimating how to limit global warming and still meet rising global energy demands.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi
Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director-General of International Atomic Energy Agency MANDEL NGAN POOL/AFP

The IPCC, UN’s climate advisory panel, has also given nuclear a place in its models, even though it claims that its deployment may be limited by “social preferences.”

Indeed, attitudes to nuclear power differ greatly across countries.

Germany and New Zealand are opposed to India building the largest nuclear power station in the world. However, India is currently in talks with EDF, the French energy giant.

Canada and the United States are both developing so-called small modular reactors, but Russia is the only country to have a floating reactor built using this technology.

Grossi said that price is not as much of a barrier now as it was in the past.

He said that countries see in smaller units an attractive alternative that is not in the billions, but in the hundreds of millions. This is very affordable when it comes down to energy projects.


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