To ensure that nuclear power can make the necessary contribution to climate change mitigation, three things are needed, writes Tim Yeo, Chairman of the pro-nuclear group New Nuclear Watch Europe (NNWE): there must be international harmonisation of safety requirements, the industry needs to bring down costs by better exploiting economies of scale and policymaking and analysis should ensure a level playing field.
The prospects for 2017, both economic and political, are beset with extraordinary uncertainty. But whatever the consequences of President Trump and Brexit, of the German and French election results, of the turmoil in the Middle East or the future of the oil price and the dollar, one thing will not change.
In 2017 the global move to low carbon technology will continue. The near universal recognition by the business community of the need for this trend to accelerate means that the switch will make considerable further progress this year in most countries, with the possible exception of the U.S.
Nowhere is this a bigger or more urgent challenge than in the energy industry. Unless faster cuts are made in carbon emissions from electricity generation average global temperature will unavoidably rise by more than 2 degrees C. The opportunity for the nuclear industry therefore remains enormous, however unpredictable the events of 2017 turn out to be.
The industry needs to get better at exploiting the economies of scale which have transformed the competitiveness of some renewable technologies
At NNWE we welcome the growth of renewable energy. We support efforts to cut the cost of electricity storage. We accept the inevitability of continuing coal consumption in Asia and the consequent need for carbon capture utilisation and storage.
But however fast advances in all these areas occur we believe that substantial new investment in nuclear power is also essential if the world is to meet its climate change objectives. Nuclear remains the only technology which currently delivers secure low carbon baseload electricity at scale.
Regrettably in some quarters opposition to nuclear energy is so visceral that evidence based arguments are ignored. But around the world enough countries either actively support nuclear, or are sufficiently open minded to consider it on its merits, to offer an enormous global market. To fulfil its potential the nuclear industry needs to do three things.
Firstly greater efforts are needed to achieve international harmonisation of safety requirements. This will only happen with the active involvement of governments. The regulators themselves are, for the most part, ready to collaborate closely and rationally. Nevertheless at present the cost of developing new plant is higher than it needs to be, in part because of how safety requirements are implemented in different jurisdictions. Political will is needed to overcome this problem.
Secondly the industry needs to get better at exploiting the economies of scale which have transformed the competitiveness of some renewable technologies. Obviously this is more challenging for nuclear, when an individual plant costs a thousand times more than a solar farm or a wind turbine, than for many other parts of the energy industry. Only China has a domestic market large enough to capture these benefits by itself.
If the coal industry was required to meet the same safety standards which are universally rightly applied to nuclear the price of coal would be higher and thousands of lives would be saved
Fossil fuel prices are likely to remain at historically low levels following the election of President Trump. The cost of solar and wind power has fallen faster than expected. The onus is therefore on the nuclear sector to respond. The signs are that it is able to do so, though the recent news from Toshiba is a reminder of the financial challenges facing the industry.
Thirdly more intellectual rigour must be applied to both policy making and financial analysis. The lack of consistency in the treatment of different energy technologies damages the nuclear industry. If, for example, the coal industry was required to meet the same safety standards which are universally rightly applied to nuclear the price of coal would be higher and thousands of lives would be saved.
Similarly the wider use of carbon pricing would enable the cost of the pollution caused by the consumption of fossil fuels to be reflected in their price. This is essential to create a level playing field for nuclear and other low carbon technologies.
Comparisons between the cost of different types of energy must also be more consistent. Claims that nuclear is more expensive than other low carbon technologies often ignore the extra cost of the back-up provision which electricity from intermittent sources requires.
The good news is that concern about poor air quality and its effect on life expectancy is now rising very quickly, particularly in Asia. This will force governments around the world to speed up further cuts in fossil fuel use and thereby enhance the opportunity for nuclear.