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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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China Could Kickstart A New Nuclear Energy Revolution

  • Nuclear is still one of the most controversial sources of energy on the planet, but it does have some key upsides, especially in the global push to tackle emissions.
  • The European Union stands completely divided on the issue of nuclear power as Scotland hosts the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. 
  • China is betting big on a nuclear future, aiming to bring over 150 new reactors online over the next 15 years. 

Nobody can seem to agree on nuclear energy. Scientific opinion is divided over whether or not nuclear energy can save the world from climate change, and public opinion is divided over whether nuclear is a safe, clean energy alternative or a dangerous ticking time bomb waiting to melt down and spread radioactive fallout over their backyards. 

The European Union stands completely divided on the issue of nuclear power as Scotland hosts the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. Germany stands staunchly opposed to nuclear and is in the process of phasing it out completely, even though nuclear accounted for nearly a third of the country’s energy mix in the year 2000. Meanwhile, a group of 10 European Union nations, with France leading the charge, is making a plea to make nuclear power a key part of the EU’s climate policy. 

Last month, France sent a letter to the European Commission arguing for the consideration of nuclear as a "key affordable, stable and independent energy source" that could protect EU consumers who are currently suffering from the energy crunch from being further "exposed to the volatility of prices." The letter was supported by Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania. Most of these 10 nations already rely on nuclear for a considerable portion of their domestic energy mix. 

In August, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) released a technology brief arguing that nuclear power could be key to meet the targets set by the Paris climate accord and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.“Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that can contribute to attaining carbon neutrality and hence help to mitigate climate change,” UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova said upon the document’s release. 

Nuclear power has already helped avoid approximately 74 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions over the past 50 years that would have otherwise been released from the use of fossil fuels. In fact, it has been estimated that nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives that would otherwise have been lost to causes related to air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels, and coal in particular. 

Other studies show that nuclear energy may not be the answer to climate change mitigation at all. A paper published in the journal Energy Policy August of this year argues that installed nuclear power capacity is simply too small now -- and still shrinking -- and will be too hard to scale up to have any kind of viable post-energy transition future, thanks to “technical obstacles and limited resources.”

Indeed, most of the world has turned away from nuclear power, which can be extremely expensive and is most often associated with high-profile disasters like the tragedies at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. One of the only countries that currently has a robust and actionable plan for nuclear development is China, which “plans to generate an eye-popping amount of nuclear energy, quickly and at relatively low cost” according to a recent Bloomberg report.

Beijing plans to bring 150 new nuclear reactors online over the next 15 years, which amounts to more nuclear capacity that the entire world has constructed in the last 35 years. “The effort could cost as much as $440 billion; as early as the middle of this decade, the country will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power,” writes Bloomberg.

This is an especially important development for China, given the size of the nation’s carbon footprint -- the biggest in the world. It’s also a development that only China could accomplish. “It would be the kind of wholesale energy transformation that Western democracies — with budget constraints, political will and public opinion to consider — can only dream of,” Bloomberg characterizes the plan. In fact, China may just be the only country in the world that can come up with the significant resources necessary to scale up nuclear so much so fast that it will put an end to the opinion that a nuclear renaissance will be “too little, too late.”

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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