Addressing the Climate Crisis with Coherent Optimism
How to optimise our energy systems for a fossil-free future.
Today, I had the pleasure of attending an EdF Energy round table on “The Climate Crisis: urgent next steps for energy policy”. This meeting was in part to help us think about what we could learn from Dr Staffan Qvists’s excellent book “A Bright Future”, co-written with Prof Joshua S. Goldstein.
This was a short breakfast round table discussion, featuring:
Dr Staffan Qvist, who is the author of “A Bright Future”, a book I received as a pre-review read and enjoyed immensely. He explores the potential of energy solutions, including nuclear, to address climate change.
Kirsty Gogan, Co-Founder and Director of Energy for Humanity.
Leo Hickman, Editor and Director of Carbon Brief, who is a journalist specialising in climate change.
Prof Gerry Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology at Imperial College London and expert in cancer, radiation and understanding risk.
Luke Clark, Head of External Affairs at RenewableUK.
Dr Jennifer Baxter, Head of Engineering at the Institute of Mechanical Engineering.
Mike Middleton, Practice Manger Nuclear at the Energy Systems Catapult.
Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, Nuclear Development Managing Director, EdF Energy.
Tim McCoy, Head of Communications for Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, EdF Energy.
Simon Jack, Business Editor, BBC News.
From our discussions, it was evident that there is a shared appreciation of the urgent threat posed by climate change, and an understanding that how we meet our future energy needs will be a huge part of our response to this threat. We are all clear that the fastest route to make significant impact is via a reduction in carbon emissions (and impact on air quality) by switching to fossil free energy systems. As framed excellently by Staffan, the choices of how to achieve such a system are few:
(1) You are lucky enough to have the mountainous geography and wet climate to support it, and are happy to exploit flowing rivers: hydro power provides fantastic, ‘always on’ on low-carbon electricity (e.g. Norway and Sweden).
(2) You are doubly-lucky with geography, and can exploit flowing rivers and geothermal (e.g. Iceland and Costa Rica).
(3) You can be strategic and use the “already solved” method of addressing a fossil free electricity supply through use of renewables and nuclear power (France, South Korea).
In each of these stories, we have case studies of how we can address the climate crisis and how we can engineer the systems of supply to provide low carbon electricity. As members of the public, we can track their performance through tools like the Electricity Map.
These three pathways indicate that we either need good geography (and a moderate population density) or we require nuclear power to be successful in our energy transition to address the climate crisis. This nuance requires local consideration and reflection on solutions that have worked, and provides context when exploring drivers from the European Community where we have international recognition of the “German Failure on the Road to a Renewable Future”.
That this round table took place now is as much influenced by Qvist’s book as by the recent growth of anti-climate change protest movements like the school climate strikes, the recent international Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, and the UK government’s decision to legislate for ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.
From EdF’s perspective, they are pushing ahead with Hinkley Point C as well as paving the communications narrative for the Sizewell C project. Each of these reactor proposals will provide c. 6% of UK electricity for 60+ years, and Hinkley Point C will provide c. 25,000 jobs in construction and c. 1,000 jobs during operation (and many more in the wider nuclear industry which supports c. 65,000 jobs in the UK). This highlights that in addition to addressing the climate crisis, there is mutual benefit for local communities and economies.
We can accept that nuclear power is a climate friendly generator and it enables us at a systems level to manage a large fraction of renewable. Together these form a “100% fossil free” electricity generation alliance, and move us beyond the tired fuzzy-feeling fake-climate-news of “100% renewables”. As Kirsty Gogan noted, measuring the deployment of renewables is a false objective if our real metric is reducing CO2 emissions. An increase in the deployment of renewables does not necessarily represent a reduction in carbon emissions; there are other factors at play such as the need for methane gas backup plants that kick in when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Luke Clark, of RenewableUK, highlighted that renewables and nuclear can and should be great friends. The growth in capacity for UK renewables is phenomenal, as it took 19 years to build out the first 5 GW of capacity, and it only took 2 years to build the last 5 GW. This build rate is matched with laudable cost reductions at point of generation, especially through new technologies such as bigger turbines, increased competition, and public and private investment in the supply chain.
While this capacity build-out is laudable, we have to recall the that UK is susceptible to significant many-day lulls in the wind, as well as significant seasonal variations. We can track these trends easily via on-line tools. Staffan discussed an analysis he did for Sweden that showed to provide one week of variable renewables backup using batteries would require the use of all the batteries that currently exist in the world.
Perhaps if we create a “climate optimist” narrative, we can provide a story for future generations that says “we saw the risk of climate change and we did something about it”. However, is there anything that could limit our ability to be optimistic on climate right now?
Staffan argued that nuclear has been given its climate ‘green credentials’ thanks to the support of the UN IPCC; and that the safety aspect of nuclear is dead, thanks to the coherent engagement of scientists. This renders our discussion of risk towards the questions of:
- Is it competitive in the fossil free scenario, e.g. vs wind?
- Is it competitive, e.g. cost per kWh?
Leo Hickman suggested that the nuclear industry is on the back foot in communicating how it is managing its costs. There is a simple narrative among opponents that says nuclear is “too costly and too slow”. However, Kirsty Gogan highlighted that the cost and time risk is largely driven by the fact that the Hinkley Point C is a “first of a kind” (FOAK) project. Furthermore, as it is a twin reactor project the second reactor is already substantively benefiting from lessons learnt from the first reactor build. In terms of Sizewell C, a direct copy of Hinkley, cost and time benefits will be naturally carried over. Here we benefit significantly from standardisation of parts, processes, and people. The thinking here was echoed later by Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson who said that “know-how is more valuable than IP” in regards to the immediate challenges the nuclear industry faces.
Looking beyond these new build scenarios, we can ask how the nuclear industry can leap forward. The ETI Nuclear Cost Drivers Project, which highlights past examples of delivering significant risk reduction through multiple, repeated builds, much like we have seen already in South Korea and France.
At present, most nuclear power building plans are supported by the state (directly or indirectly). At the outset, we can capture this with the formal ‘levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). This is a formalised way to try to provide a revenue based assessment of the cost of supply. We can easily get lost here in an economical and philosophical argument about who pays for energy — but we can skip that and just say that “someone does”. This someone is either the consumer, through their energy tariff, or the taxpayer. As an intermediary during the lag between providing energy to homes and companies, business pick up the costs via financial instruments. The payback and cost of nuclear power, at the building stage, is therefore driven by in part by risk (as noted in the ETI graphic above).
Why do I raise political risk here? Many nuclear companies and experts lead their pitch with “our new plant will be safer than ever before”. This is a poor communications strategy; we are immediately putting the idea of safety in the forefront of everyone’s mind and letting safety regulation drive cost. As I shared at the meeting, “any perfectly safe system costs an infinite amount of money”. As an engineer, I know that we continually make judgement calls about the potential risks to others from our actions and technologies. Along these lines, Prof Gerry Thomas pointed out how human beings are terrible at coping with increased temperatures, and it is the most vulnerable (e.g. the elderly, infirm, and less developed nations) who will see the greatest mortality-risk due to climate change. Nuclear power may pose a risk if it goes wrong, but there is also a risk of increased climate change if we don’t build it.
The simple act of doing something, providing low carbon energy solutions, is where our optimism begins. The alternative is that we end up with climate pessimism, where energy poverty is our ultimate ending. If we are being optimistic, we can consider the relative risk of our solutions:
Here the idea of the deathprint is useful to provide systems-level context for our choices. Any form of energy generation has a human capital cost, and each human death is a tragedy. The deathprint numbers highlight that despite significant media coverage, due to the efficiency (kWh per plant) of nuclear power the relative human capital cost is very small.
It is important to remember, especially given the recent HBO mini-series, that the Chernobyl accident, according to the UN, caused 30 worker deaths during the accident, and no more than 54 deaths in total. Three Mile Island caused no direct deaths. For Fukushima-Daiichi, the UN reported that “no radiation-related deaths or acute diseases have been observed among the workers and general public exposed to radiation from the accident”. I raise attention to these facts because while these accidents have resulted in a small number of deaths (in total), they have raised the costs of building nuclear power significantly, increased political risk, and driven up cost.
Looking further ahead, we hope that small/advanced modular reactors (SMRs or AMRs) aka “baby nuclear reactors” have a role to play. These devices can provide between 50–600 MW (Hinkley Point C is 3.2 GW, with current UK demand at around 36 GW). They are modular and so can be factory-produced, increasing the likelihood that we can stabilise the nuclear supply chain, creating sustained manufacturing and construction jobs, and substantively decreasing the time to connect each new reactor to the grid. Dr Jennifer Baxter highlighted that these will also provide community engagement in the nuclear story, as we will have more communities engaged in the locations of each reactor plant. Conveniently, the size of the AMR/SMR reactors is almost equivalent to the old Magnox reactor sites in the UK.
How else can we benefit from nuclear power in our decarbonisation strategy, beyond electricity? Here Mike Middleton brought in analysis of the systems benefit. In the UK, it is easiest for us to decarbonise electricity, however heat (industrial and domestic) and transport are significant contributors to our carbon footprint. In the ‘next generation’ and advanced reactor space, we can look towards providing district heating & co-production of hydrogen. The idea of co-production of hydrogen is not far-fetched. China is already building a very high temperature reactor, which opens up the potential for direct hydrogen production from the nuclear plant and will pave the path towards providing ‘real time load balancing’ — either produce electricity or store energy as hydrogen, for later burning (e.g. in transport).
It is very easy for us to consider, project by project, the relative cost of each fraction of our energy infrastructure. Building out a large fraction of the UK grid with renewables, backed by gas, is a relatively low cost and politically safe proposal. Yet, as we increase the penetration of intermittent supply on the grid, we will see that it is increasingly difficult for us to reach a zero carbon future. We will be locked into a gas-backed infrastructure and find it extremely difficult to close out the final ~20–40% of our supply. This reality means that we will need to consider life beyond the next kWh, and if we want a fossil-free existence we will require investment in new nuclear power.
To summarise, to address the climate crisis we have to be optimistic. We have to be strategic. We have to seize opportunities, and we have to work together. For the UK, and many other countries, nuclear power plays to our strengths and can help us move forward together.
Conflict of interest declaration: I do not receive research or personal funds from EdF Energy, but as an employee of Imperial College London we are a strategic partner. I work with EdF & EdF Energy on projects, and students on the MSc in Advanced Nuclear Engineering have had student projects directly co-supervised with EdF Energy.
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