Net Zero Isn’t Possible Without Nuclear

Net Zero Isn’t Possible Without Nuclear


Rather quietly, a new era of atomic energy may be approaching. Splitting atoms may not be as exciting as fusing them, or as modest as wind and solar projects. However, old-fashioned separation is about to make a comeback thanks to innovative new reactor designs. The world will be better for this revolution – if policymakers allow it.

As the fight against climate change accelerates, the progress of new energy is everywhere to be seen. Renewable energy sources – wind and solar – are becoming more abundant as technology improves and funding flows. They’re also getting cheaper: from 2009 to 2021, the unsubsidized cost of wind fell by 72% and that of utility-scale solar fell by 90%. Energy storage is also becoming more affordable.

However, according to current trends, none of these are enough. Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Such a disruption requires either extremely large storage capacities or more reliable energy sources to fill the gaps. At the moment, this is mainly coal and natural gas – which is why fossil fuels still account for around 80% of the world’s primary energy supply.

Nuclear is the obvious alternative. A fission reactor produces clean, reliable, efficient and abundant power, 24 hours a day, rain or shine. Despite the alarm caused by rare accidents, such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the risks of nuclear power are extremely low per unit of energy produced, and newer reactor designs are still safer. Similarly, the dangers posed by radioactive waste are quickly receding, thanks to better tools and processes.

To meet global emissions targets, nuclear generation will need to roughly double by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Unfortunately, the world is moving backwards in key respects. Nuclear’s share of global energy production fell to 10.1% in 2020, from 17.5% in 1996. In the US, about a dozen reactors have been shut down since 2013 and more are on the chopping block. According to the Energy Information Administration, nuclear’s share of U.S. generation will drop from about 19% today to 11% by 2050, even as demand for electricity increases. Although renewables will take some of the slack, fossil fuels are expected to dominate for decades.

Given the potential dangers of climate change — an “existential threat” as President Joe Biden puts it — these trends are cause for alarm. Around the world, governments should extend the lives of existing nuclear plants, work with industry to finance new ones, and redouble efforts to improve waste disposal and otherwise ease the public’s mind about the potential risks.

Most importantly, they must promote nuclear innovation. In recent years, small modular reactors (known as SMRs) are moving closer to commercial reality. Companies are testing dozens of competing designs. These reactors promise a much safer, cheaper and more flexible power supply to complement wind and solar. They can drive economies of scale through standardized manufacturing, while potentially powering everything from homes to factories to transportation.

However, bureaucracy is standing in the way. In particular, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has blocked new reactors for decades, thanks largely to outdated safety standards. In 2019, Congress directed the commission to create a new licensing regime for SMRs, hoping to accelerate their development and commercialization. Instead, the NRC has diligently inflated its regulation. Going forward, any increase in the commission’s budget must be conditioned on an increase in US nuclear production; if the NRC cannot rise to the challenge, Congress should step aside and authorize a new watchdog for advanced reactors.

In general, lawmakers need to rethink their entire approach to nuclear regulation — created in a different era, with different needs — and go back to first principles. Their main goals should shift from total risk avoidance to maximizing nuclear power, accelerating innovation and reducing carbon emissions with old and new technologies.

Confronting climate change means accepting hard realities. The world can’t decarbonise without nuclear power – and it can’t expand its nuclear generation without rethinking the rules. Time is short.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Fusion Energy, Long Elusive, Is Starting to Look Real: Editorial

• More nuclear power is what both sides want: Matthew Yglesias

• Nuclear power has one last chance to thrive in the US: Liam Denning

The editors are members of Bloomberg Opinion’s editorial board.

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