Tag Archives: Clean Energy

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Our move to zero emissions must use nuclear energy

By John Gorman
Originally published in Policy Options, September 27, 2019

his spring I changed jobs. I shifted from advocating for renewable energy to promoting nuclear energy — to many, a surprising twist in my career path. But for me, it was a logical outcome of the realization that the climate emergency requires us all to pick up the pace of transformation.

Solar technology is clean, it empowers people and businesses, and it’s scalable. I remain a big proponent of both wind and solar.

But I and others are becoming increasingly aware that wind and solar aren’t enough to respond to the climate emergency. Twenty years ago, 36 percent of the world’s electric power was clean, coming from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases (nuclear plus renewables, including hydro).  Twenty years and $3 trillion in investment later, the non-GHG-emitting share of world electricity is still at 36 percent.  Seeing these unchanging numbers has been a shock.  Despite the impressive growth of wind and solar, we’re not moving the needle on decarbonizing global electricity systems.

I’m convinced that two factors stop renewables from cleaning up the world’s energy system. One is that electricity demand keeps growing quickly, and that need has to be met somehow. Too often, coal and gas are the only sources that can finish filling that gap.

The other is that wind and solar are intermittent, and fossil fuels are being used to back them up. It’s clear that if renewables are going to transform the climate picture, they will have to partner with something more sustainable.

The International Energy Agency has just studied this problem, and it’s absolutely clear in its report that two changes are needed. First, we have to stop closing nuclear plants prematurely. These closures, driven by politics or by the availability of cheap natural gas, take huge chunks of clean power out of the system, further increasing the demand gap that gets at least partly filled by fossil fuels. Second, we have to stop backing up wind and solar with fossil fuels.

What else can partner with renewables? Well, there’s very little time — 10 or 20 years, at best — to get this done. So it has to be a proven, or at least modelled and tested, technology that we can start building today.

What technology has already decarbonized entire large economies, like France and Sweden and Ontario? Nuclear energy has. And while existing nuclear plants have shown they can pair with variable wind and solar to some extent, the new, small reactors will be even more flexible, and they’ll be more distributed in location, too.

Today about 81 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from clean sources such as nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. However, four provinces still have high concentrations of fossil fuels. The challenge is to shift the country the rest of the way toward a clean grid.

In the absence of a plan to do this, as we push these provinces to get off coal, we’re pushing them toward gas — which only reduces the emissions by about half. Add in the growth of demand for power, and a switch to gas will hardly make a dent in emissions.

Any realistic way to respond to the climate emergency and move to zero emissions has to include nuclear energy. Once we face this reality, it becomes a question of how we bring nuclear into the mix. We might make progress with more stringent emissions rules that would slow the rush toward gas. But it would be better to have a plan for investing in a combined clean energy solution: renewables and small, distributed nuclear plants, integrated together. That’s the direction I want to go in with my role at the Canadian Nuclear Association.

The urgency of the climate challenge means we have to use proven technologies, or at least technologies that are well along in testing and commercialization. Hoping that brand-new, untested, unscaled technologies are the answer just risks deferring action until they are scaled up and proven and safe and commercialized. That might take decades and cannot be relied on. Focusing on new technology is highly uncertain and ignores the scale of worldwide infrastructure change that we should be doing right now. The only readily available technology that can complete our response to this emergency is nuclear.

Fortunately, the urgency is forcing decision-makers to revisit their attitudes to nuclear. They’re seeing that current solution paths aren’t working. Those arguing for 100 per cent renewables — and I was one of them — are starting to admit this. And when, as a solar energy advocate, I started to look again at nuclear, I realized how much misinformation is out there. If you look at its full record and its full life cycle, nuclear is safe, reliable and clean.

Individual actions — veganism, electric cars, not flying — have the same challenges as renewables: they’re valuable, they deserve credit, but what if they can’t turn the tide? Household decisions can go some distance, but it’s policy steps — like all the anti-pollution measures taken in the 1970s and ’80s — that will be transformative.

The value of declaring an emergency is that the public might decide to give governments the space and the permission to make really hard policy decisions, and take action. That’s how we have to respond now.

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IEA report stresses need for maintaining nuclear

The world will have an almost impossible task of meeting climate targets if nuclear energy is not increased.

IEA Director Fatih Birol.

That’s the conclusion of a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that was released at the 10th Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver in May.

In its report, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System,” the IEA said if governments don’t change their current policies, advanced economies will be on track to lose two-thirds of their current nuclear fleet, risking a huge increase in CO2 emissions.

“Without action to provide more support for nuclear power, global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly,” IEA Director Fatih Birol said.

“Wind and solar energy need to play a much greater role in order for countries to meet sustainability goals, but it is extremely difficult to envisage them doing so without help from nuclear power.”

The report made eight policy recommendations to governments, including authorizing lifetime extensions if safe for current plants, supporting new build and supporting innovative designs, such as small modular reactors.

The IEA estimates that it would cost approximately $1.6 trillion between 2018 and 2040 in additional investment to replace existing nuclear with renewable energy, supporting technologies and infrastructure. That works out to $80 billion higher per year on average for advanced economies.

The study also notes the past contribution of nuclear energy to the climate.

“Globally, nuclear power output avoided 63 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) from 1971 to 2018,” the IEA noted. “Without nuclear power, emissions from electricity generation would have been almost 20% higher, and total energy-related emissions 6% higher, over that period. Without nuclear power, emissions from electricity generation would have been 25% higher in Japan, 45% higher in Korea and over 50% higher in Canada over the period 1971-2018.”

The IEA understands the best path to decarbonization, but currently, many people in the clean energy space believe in a single solution.

We need all available tools and technologies to reduce emissions. And they must complement each other and work together in an integrated clean energy system. That system should include nuclear.

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Clean versus renewable energy: What’s the difference?

Since declaring climate change a national emergency on June 7, Canadian government leaders across parties are moving to develop their own policies on the issue to demonstrate they are poised for action.

Terms such as clean and renewable energy are being used in climate plans. But what do they really mean?

An article from earlier this year points out that the terms clean energy and renewable energy are sometimes used interchangeably, leading to confusion. Clearly defining what these terms mean and including them in climate change policies will be essential as Canada works to lower emissions and meet international commitments.

According to the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy for Canada 2019-2022 (FSDS) clean energy is defined as “Renewable and non-emitting (such as nuclear) energy sources, and carbon capture and storage technologies, as well as the reduction of energy usage through energy efficiency.”

The FSDS defines renewable energy as “Energy obtained from natural resources that can be naturally replenished or renewed within a human lifespan.” Both definitions appeared for the first time in the Strategy’s Glossary of Terms in 2016 – the year the Paris Agreement was signed.

Yet Generation Energy, a report released by Natural Resources Canada in June 2018, refers to clean energy as “electricity produced from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, etc.), as well as energy efficiency solutions.” Nuclear energy, the second largest low-carbon power source in the world, is left out of the definition entirely.

The term non-emitting is included separately in the report’s glossary defining it as “electricity produced from sources that produce no carbon pollution, such as hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, and tidal.”

If these definitions continue to change from one policy document to the next, it could result in energy plans changing as well, which could slow progress.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that global declines in nuclear power could result in severe strain on the energy grids of advanced economies. Renewables would have to ramp up at an unprecedented rate resulting in $1.6 trillion in investments. This could affect not only cost per kWh but delay our ability to lower emissions and establish energy security.

By following the example of the FSDS and designing national strategies that include non-emitting sources such as nuclear in the definition of clean energy, and including clean energy along with renewables as part of the clean energy mix, Canada will be more likely to lower emissions quickly and efficiently.

Consistent use of the terms clean energy and renewable energy in climate change policies is not just about preventing misunderstandings; it could represent the difference between meeting our climate targets and missing them.

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Did You Know? Cleanest Energy

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Nuclear – Canada’s Clean Energy Future

When it comes to meeting the needs of global climate change mitigation efforts, nuclear technology plays an important role.

Partnering with other counties, our nuclear industry can help contribute to affordable and clean energy around the world, including countries such as Argentina, China, South Korea, Romania and India. Our industry’s investments in innovative nuclear technology have the capacity to provide a clean source of energy to remote communities, resource extraction sites and provincial electricity grids and provide desalination options. Canada’s nuclear future is clean, competitive and able to provide power to much needed communities while contributing in the fight against climate change.

For our part, Canada’s nuclear reactor technology and uranium exports have, over the last 30 years, contributed globally to the avoidance of at least a billion tonnes of CO2 (in displacing fossil fuel sources).  Uranium alone from Cameco, Canada’s largest uranium mining company, powers 1 out of every 18 homes in the United States and 1 of every 10 in Canada.  This represents an enormous amount of avoided GHG emissions.  Thanks to Canadian CANDU technology, our nuclear reactor fleet provides clean, affordable and low-carbon energy, powering approximately 60% of Ontario’s electricity needs and one-third of New Brunswick’s.

The federal government’s recent Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy included nuclear in all its models for achieving drastic GHG emission reductions by 2050.  Earlier, at COP21 in Paris, Canada joined 21 countries plus the European Union to create Mission Innovation, a pledge to double national investments in clean energy innovation over five years.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 recommended tripling the amount of energy use from renewable energy and nuclear power to keep climate change within two degrees Celsius.  Meanwhile, in its 2016 World Energy Outlook scenario, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said limiting the increase in global temperatures to less than 2⁰ C would require global nuclear generation to increase by almost two-and-a-half times by 2040.

If mitigation pathways are to be on target, keeping a global temperature rise limited to 1.5 degrees while simultaneously staying on course to meet the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community must continue to promote and invest in low-carbon technologies, including nuclear.

Important breakthroughs are coming in the area of advanced reactor technology and more efficient fuels that will have exciting domestic and global applications. Hydrogen fuels, molten salt reactors and fusion energy are a small sample of the next generation of nuclear powered technologies.

Nearly all the value chain in our nuclear sector comes from, and belongs to, Canada – from mining to innovative reactor technology, all the way through to eventual decommissioning, giving Canada a highly valuable and skilled clean-tech workforce.

We need public policy-makers to support access to sufficient financing for Canada’s clean technology exports.  Important breakthroughs are coming in the area of advanced small reactor technology that will have exciting domestic and global applications.  This opportunity combines global growth potential with a climate-friendly technology.  Canada can have a competitive edge here, given timely policy and financing support. Our nuclear industry has the potential to provide more than just clean energy but affordable and sustainable options for Canada and internationally.

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Nuclear Science, Climate Change & Sustainable Development: An Idea Worth Sharing

The fury of the Atlantic was on full display in late summer and early fall as hurricanes lined up to batter the Atlantic coast. Harvey, Irma and Maria knocked out power to millions of people and left communities in ruins. The power of Irma destroyed or damaged almost all the buildings on Barbuda, forcing the entire island to be abandoned. Meanwhile the force of Maria was enough to knock out power to all of Puerto Rico and citizens could be in the dark for months.

The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently reported that ocean warming, resulting from climate change could have direct impacts on future hurricanes.

“Anthropogenic warming by the end of the 21st century will likely cause tropical cyclones globally to be more intense on average (by 2 to 11% according to model projections for an IPCC A1B scenario). This change would imply an even larger percentage increase in the destructive potential per storm, assuming no reduction in storm size.”

It’s not just through hurricanes that we see the direct impacts of climate change on human life. Climate change plays a huge role in access to food, water, health and the environment. As such, it is one of the contributing factors affecting sustainable global development. There are other factors to be sure. Together however, they condemn large parts of the world to poverty, underdevelopment, poor health amid a deteriorating environment. So, what to do?

To make life better for both developed and developing countries, the United Nations, in partnership with the global community, set out seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. These goals focus on meeting our needs today without compromising our future.

Thanks to uranium atoms, we can provide the necessary power to help lift people out of energy poverty, provide clean drinking water and help protect the environment, thereby bettering the lives of billions of people around the world. Nuclear science meets NINE of the seventeen sustainable development goals.

2 Zero Hunger:  Using nuclear science to alter the DNA of plants is a proven effective method to make them more resilient to climate change and is in use by 100 countries.

3 Good Health And Well-Being: A nuclear by-product, Cobalt-60, plays an important role in nuclear medicine. Low-grade Cobalt-60 is used to sterilize medical equipment such as syringes and catheters. High-Speed Activity (HSA) or medical-grade Cobalt-60 is widely used to treat cancer patients. Over 70 million people have been treated thanks to nuclear science.

6 Clean Water And Sanitation: Nuclear science using electron beams (e-beams) can break apart chemical bonds. China, the world’s largest textile industry, recently opened-up an e-beam wastewater treatment facility to treat and reuse wastewater used in clothing manufacturing.

7 Affordable And Clean Energy: According to IAEA projections, energy demand will rise by 60-100% by 2030. To help lift people out of poverty and realize the climate goals set out in Paris, low-carbon, cheap energy is needed. According to the Ontario Energy Board, in 2016, nuclear cost just under 7 cents per kilowatt hour, making it one of the most cost-effective, clean sources of energy. (Solar costs 48 cents per kilowatt hour and hydro 6 cents.)

9 Industry, Innovation And Infrastructure: Innovation in nuclear technology includes Generation IV reactors, hydrogen fuels, small modular reactors (SMRs) and fusion energy.

13 Climate Action: Globally, nuclear power avoids 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions every year, equal to taking approximately half of all (520 million cars) off the world’s roads. Nuclear power is the largest non-hydro source of low-carbon, clean energy worldwide, providing almost 12% of global electricity production.

14 Life Below Water: Nuclear science techniques that use radioisotopes can diagnose the impacts of ocean acidification on the food chain, giving scientists a better understanding of how rising acidity impacts both ecosystems and marine life.

15 Life On Land: Isotopes are a valuable environmental risk assessment tool as they can identify various contaminants which can help to assist with environmental monitoring and remediation of land areas.

17 Partnerships For The Goals: The global nuclear community has a long list of partnerships including various UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), universities and thank tanks and Indigenous communities.

While violent hurricane seasons are nothing new, the warming of our ocean waters, brought about by climate change, raise the concern that more catastrophic hurricanes, like the ones this season, could be the new normal. It’s just one example that underlines the importance of investments in sustainable science and technology, like nuclear, in order to keep the Earth on course to meet sustainable development goals today, ensuring a successful tomorrow.