Prof Talk | Can we achieve climate goals without nuclear energy?
The EU wants to achieve a fully carbon-neutral and sustainable energy supply system by 2050. That is why more and more European countries, including the Netherlands, have showed a renewed interest in nuclear energy. Climate and nuclear energy experts Heleen de Coninck, Marco de Baar and Niek Lopes Cardozo talk about whether we need nuclear energy to achieve the climate goals, and discuss the current status of nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source.
In order to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, several countries – including China, the United Arab Emirates and Great Britain – have said that they plan to build more nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is a virtually carbon-free energy source. The Netherlands too is thinking about investing in nuclear power, fifty years after its first and only commercial nuclear power plant became operational. The negotiating parties no longer seem to debate whether the Netherlands should build a new nuclear power plant or not, but how much money the government plans to invest. Our country’s only operational nuclear power plant in Borssele generates about four percent of the total energy consumption in the Netherlands. Building a new plant could take more than fifteen years and costs billions of euros.
Support for a new nuclear power plant seems to grow. However, this statement comes with an important comment, according to TU/e climate expert Heleen de Coninck, full professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change at the department of IE&IS. “People are often simply asked whether they are for or against nuclear energy. But the next question should be if they support their government making a significant investment – with public funds – and how they feel about the fact that such a plant might be located near where people live. That could result in a totally different picture.”
De Coninck, one of the lead authors of the much-discussed IPCC report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, is convinced that the Paris Agreement’s climate goals can also be met without nuclear energy. “According to a detailed model analysis by TNO, this also applies to the Netherlands. Naturally, that would require other options, such as biomass, carbon capture and storage, or substantial energy-saving measures, which have different pros and cons.”
Fifty percent increase in energy consumption
Marco de Baar, full professor of Plasma Fusion Operation and Control at the department of Mechanical Engineering and director of DIFFER, the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, which is located on the TU/e campus, agrees with De Coninck and says that 2050 without nuclear energy is “feasible in principle.” He does however foresee problems for the period after that. “Many people don’t realize that energy consumption will likely have increased with fifty percent by 2100. This will become a serious problem without nuclear energy.” Niek Lopes Cardozo, full professor of Science and Technology of Nuclear Fusion at the department of Applied Physics, agrees with De Baar. “We need to be firing on all cylinders in 2050 if we want to make it to 2100. We better make sure that we have a variety of options to choose from so that it won’t be a problem if one of those option proves unsuccessful.”
Both Lopes Cardozo and De Baar emphatically state that the use of nuclear energy requires a long-term vision. “Development lead-times are very long,” De Baar says. “The current generation II reactors (a class of reactors built until the end of the 1990s, ed.) are quite safe, but they also have a serious waste problem, we shouldn’t want to invest in these kinds of reactors anymore. The generation IV reactors, innovative nuclear reactors with a high level of sustainability, such as the highly promising molten salt reactor, still require a development trajectory. That is why it would be wiser to invest heavily in renewable energy at this point, while simultaneously setting up that aforementioned development trajectory for generation IV reactors as well as for nuclear fusion reactors, so that we can start to use them in 2050. Because nuclear fusion won’t be here soon enough to help us with the current energy transition.”
Nuclear fusion startups
Today’s nuclear power plants use uranium or plutonium for fission reactions; nuclear fusion is the process by which atoms are combined. The major advantage of nuclear fusion is that it doesn’t create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste and that the risks are significantly lower. A continuously operating fusion reactor isn’t likely to become a reality in the near future, even though several development teams are working on it worldwide, Lopes Cardozo says. “Nuclear fusion has attracted billions of dollars in private funding over the past few years. These fusion startups are working on several different concepts parallel to each other. ‘High-risk high-potential,’ but together they can seriously accelerate the development of this technology. Because if one such startup scores a success, the time gain is considerable.”
All three professor believe that investing in knowledge development should be a key focus area before the scaling up of nuclear energy commences. “And,” De Baar says, “we shouldn’t fixate on energy supply alone, instead, we need to assess the entire chain and start to reorganize processes to reduce emissions. Here, too, we benefit from new materials, technology and research.”
Nuclear energy doesn’t seem to be the most economically attractive option, De Coninck says in conclusion. Investments are huge and it might take more than fifteen years before a plant will produce its first kilowatt hour, providing investors with their first euros. “That is why it’s important to ask ourselves whether public and political support can be guaranteed in the long term,” De Coninck says.
It’s important to ask ourselves whether public and political support can be guaranteed in the long term.
Lopes Cardozo refers to this as “sticking to a masterplan,” and believes that the question of whether or not we want nuclear fission can’t be asked separately. “The question we need to ask is what energy mix – with all its pros and cons – do we want. With the requirement that we meet the climate goals with this mix. A masterplan, and following the late David MacKay, who was a leading energy expert, ‘a plan on a map.’ Not just what, but also where.” De Coninck: “Indeed, if we decide to do it, we need to recognize the commitment we enter into and its implications. The climate goals are very ambitious. If we commit ourselves to new plants and hope to achieve carbon reduction with that but ten years from now decide not to build those plants after all because of fragile public support for example, we will have wasted a lot of money and created an unbreachable gap in the carbon budget. We can’t afford that any longer.”