COP26: climate crisis gives new impetus to nuclear energy

“We weren’t welcome, but that has changed,” they say. Driven by the climate crisis, the defenders of the nuclear energy, starting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (OIEA), came to promote their merits to the COP26 from Glasgow.

“This COP is perhaps the first in which nuclear energy has a place at the negotiating table, it is taken into consideration and can speak without the ideological burden that existed before,” the Argentine told AFP. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the organization.

In the years after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Japanese Fukushima, there was a growing reluctance but now “the tables have turned,” he assures.

In the context of climate change, the argument about its low CO2 emissions, mainly linked to the extraction of the uranium and concrete for the power plants.

Nuclear power is part of the solution to global warming. It is not a panacea, it may not be for everyone, but it already provides more than 25% of the clean energy“.

“Without it, we will not succeed,” defends Grossi, champion of this cause since he took office in December 2019.

“My first COP was in Madrid”, at the end of that year, he remembers. “I went there despite the widespread idea that nuclear power would not be welcome. Now, not only is it not badly received, but it arouses great interest,” he adds.

Centennial reactors

In Glasgow, he met with ministers and other officials, explaining that these technologies can replace fossil fuels.

The atom carries great risks: accidents, complicated storage and treatment of highly radioactive waste for thousands of years, high costs … all of them arguments that mobilize various NGOs against it.

But Grossi defends that the critics are waters.

“You have to see the facts,” he says. “On France represents more than 70% (of electricity), in USA 20%, in Russia the same … Nuclear energy never stops, it complements other sources, including renewables, “he argues.

In his opinion, “accidents are rare, and if you look at the statistics in terms of consequences, well below what other energy sources generate.”

But could new reactors be deployed quickly enough to react to climate change?

The Argentine defends that “we have to start by preserving the existing ones.”

But how long can they last? “We are seeing plants planned for 60 years with the strictest standards applied by national regulators and supervised by the IAEA,” he says. “What can be more effective than a team that supplies you for almost a hundred years?” He asks.

“When I say one hundred, it is a bit of a provocation, but maybe not, because it could well be the case,” he adds, giving the example of the central de Beznau, the oldest in Switzerland, which was launched in the 1960s.

In the corridors of COP26, activists from “Nuclear for Climate“—Some of them professionals in the sector— make themselves heard.

“Let’s talk about nuclear power!” Says the blue T-shirt of Callum Thomas, British observer in the negotiations on behalf of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum.

“Many see gas prices quadruple and the viability of nuclear energy is being raised,” he says.

For all?

The world is so behind in its climate goals and in the energy transition to eliminate the hydrocarbons that the nuclear argument can be very powerful. Some scientists defend it.

In most scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel of UN experts on the Climate change (IPCC) to limit warming to + 1.5 ° C, the proportion of nuclear energy has increased, although they also warn that its deployment “may be limited by the preferences of society.”

Countries are divided on this. Germany opposes while France defends him, China has the largest number of reactors in the world and the European Union it is debated whether to include it in its classification of “sustainable” investments.

Many institutions also do not finance nuclear projects, such as the world Bank, recently visited by Grossi, in whose opinion, despite its costs, everyone can aspire to nuclear energy.

At COP26, “developing countries, in particular, came to ask us for help,” they say.

“Countries see small units as an interesting alternative, involving hundreds of millions (of dollars) and not billions,” he explains, also proposing “phased programs” to accompany newcomers.

Canada and the United States already develop small modular reactors, or SMR for its acronym in English, although so far only Russia has opened a floating plant using this technology.

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