Nuclear’s Role in Fighting Climate Change

As tempting as it is, I’ll try not to spend too much time trying to convince you that nuclear power is the answer to how we save the world from the climate crisis. Please recognize my restraint though; advocating for nuclear is deeply engrained into most nuclear engineering curricula. We are taught to internalize many of the talking points:

Nuclear reactors are deployable today and their primary obstacles are political; not technological.

Earlier this month, I attended the American Nuclear Society’s Young Professionals Congress, where one of the keynote speakers at the opening plenary described nuclear as being “central to the conversation” at this year’s COP. This was indeed a particularly productive COP for nuclear, with several encouraging announcements being made:

I couldn’t help but feel though that framing nuclear energy as one of the major components of COP26 didn’t really capture the scope of the event. For one, there was significant opposition to nuclear energy’s inclusion at the conference, with some European Union countries going as far as creating an anti-nuclear negotiating block. In the nuclear community, we’ve largely convinced ourselves that the technology we steward is the answer the world is looking for. Of course, I believe that nuclear will play a significant role in decarbonizing the planet’s electricity, hydrogen, and steam production sectors. I am also encouraged by the good work nuclear advocates do to make sure others join our cause. What I learned from COP though, is that to the rest of the world’s climate advocates, even if nuclear does end up being an answer to fighting climate change, it is far from being the only answer (or even one of the most important answers).

When I arrived at COP, I was immediately taken aback by the breadth of what the planet is dealing with. I’d heard in various classes how “wicked” of a problem climate change is, but being immersed in all of the efforts at once was somewhat overwhelming. The first area I attended in the COP Blue Zone (the part of the conference that requires badges) housed a series of pavilions. There were more than 80, and most of them were dedicated to showcasing the climate efforts of individual countries or coalitions of countries represented at the COP. A handful of them represented organizations dedicated to topics prevalent in the climate change dialogue. There were pavilions dedicated science, peatlands, methane reduction, resilience, adaptation, business, nature, health, indigenous people, bamboo, wind, cryosphere, education, rainforests, agriculture, oceans, sustainability, finance, technology, multilevel action and even one dedicated exclusively to nuclear. While it was certainly encouraging to see that nuclear had a place at the negotiating table, it was much more encouraging to see how big the table is and how many interests have seats.

Each day of the COP negotiations was given a specific theme, which also impressed upon me the scale of the conference. There were entire days devoted to energy, finance, youth and public empowerment, nature, adaptation, loss and damage, transport, cities, regions and built environment, gender, and science and innovation. Nuclear was only a niche subcategory of a single day of the two-week long negotiations. Of the 272 side events hosted within the Blue Zone, only two explicitly addressed nuclear’s role in combating climate change. The side events covered a vast range of topics though, ranging from aviation to youth engagement. Filtering by the listed categories, it’s apparent that there were 11 other categories more prominently featured than energy-related events.

Number of side events when sorted by available categories. Some events were tagged with more than one category.

Some of the most significant headlines to come out of COP26 included the global pledge to reduce methane emissions, pledges to end illegal deforestation, many countries phasing out coal, the US and China agreeing to make more significant climate changes, and India joining the net zero pledge by 2070. None of these initiatives explicitly mention nuclear energy, but all are considered major developments in the fight against climate change. In trying to grasp what the real priorities were at this year’s COP, I read through endless headlines detailing the various announcements and agreements that were reached and generated word clouds from COP26 summary documents. In this summary, the word “nuclear” only appears once… in a footnote.

Word cloud from COP26 summary document.

As a nuclear engineer, I think it’s tempting to takeaway from the conference that nuclear just isn’t that important when it comes to fighting climate change or to be angry that the rest of the world isn’t taking your pleas seriously. It should be encouraging though that we’re fighting climate change on all fronts. The scope of the conference signals that we need to address all of these issues in order to effectively fight climate change. It’s that big of a problem.

We need nuclear reactors to provide reliable baseload power, but we also need cheaper renewable energy to be the majority of electricity generation. We need a smarter grid infrastructure to balance electricity demand. We need better batteries. We need clean hydrogen for fuel cells. We need mass adoption of electric vehicles. We need cleaner aviation and shipping technologies. We need more mature carbon capture technologies. We need to end the use of fossil fuels. We need to end deforestation. We need to plant more forests. We need cleaner ways to produce cement and steel. We need to protect the mangroves and the peatlands. We need to preserve biodiversity. We need better climate financing. We need markets to emerge for green technologies. We need better crops that can survive droughts and floods. We need heat pumps to heat and cool homes. We need it all.

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