Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

Argentina has a long history of achievements in the field of nuclear technology that have materialised despite long periods of dithering or outright paralysis, as a result of the conception that it is a luxury that we should do without as a dependent country and supplier of raw materials. However, even today, amidst a huge national and global crisis, we are still seen as an oddity in the field supported by the conviction of a part of the society that believes that technology is not only something for central countries and that it can be a tool to pull us out of underdevelopment.

Nuclear technology permeates a variety of human activities. We live in a radioactive world and nearly every human endeavour is directly or indirectly related to the transformations of the atom. The use of nuclear energy to produce electricity by means of nuclear power stations is one of its most important applications. This activity saw significant development in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the mid-1980s with the Chernobyl accident. Since then, there have been advances and setbacks in the plans of countries to install nuclear power plants, but this generation option has by no means been deemed extinct, and continued to flourish, particularly in Asian countries with China leading the way, all of them with scarce natural resources and eager to grow and bring their populations out of poverty. 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was created in 1992 and in 1997 a global consensus was reached on the need to stabilise the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) (Kyoto, 1997). However, only in 2015 was a binding agreement reached whereby countries undertook to commit themselves to reducing their emissions, which were to be updated every five years (Paris, 2015). On that occasion it was also established that it was essential to lower the earth's average temperature increase from pre-industrial values to less than 1.5°C in order to avoid catastrophic effects on the climate. 

The degradation of the planet and climate change has begun to leak out of laboratories and specialised strongholds to make a large part of the population aware of the finitude of resources, the importance of preserving ecosystems and the need to make drastic changes in the lifestyles of our societies. It thus became clear that the way we produce, transform, and use energy, which is the driver of any modern society, is responsible for two thirds of the GHG emissions that cause climate change, and that the use of coal, oil, and gas, in that order, are the main culprits. In other words, not only are natural resources finite, but their use is increasingly degrading our environment. At the same time, the emergence of the newest forms of using renewable resources for power generation has given us a glimpse at a possible future without fossil fuels. Variable renewable energies (VRE), especially wind and solar, have had an extraordinary development, proving that their intermittency, which is a major difficulty for their integration into power grids, is a problem that can be addressed with the help of conventional generators (of which only nuclear and hydroelectric power plants do not produce GHGs) and appropriate adaptations of power grids.

The latter, grid upgrades, is a crucial and very pricey factor that becomes increasingly costly and necessary as the proportion of VRE connected to the grid increases. Conventional generators provide the necessary flexibility to the grid to compensate for the intermittency of renewable generation (they can increase/decrease the power delivered to the grid in response to variations in intermittent generation) and contribute the stability characteristic of the large rotating masses associated with conventional generation. Once again, it is worth underscoring that only nuclear power plants, along with hydroelectric power plants, afford flexibility and stability without polluting emissions into the atmosphere. Currently, nuclear power accounts for 10% of the world's power generation - 30% of it without polluting emissions, and combined with hydroelectric power, they account for 70% of GHG-free power generation.

In conclusion, nuclear generation is an ideal complement to VRE, allowing them to be increasingly deployed while mitigating and spreading the extraordinary costs of upgrading the grids over time. The need to address climate change "rediscovers" nuclear energy as a valuable ally in the long process of energy transition towards more climate-friendly forms of generation. Given this context, the life extension of nuclear power plants, which can significantly increase their operating time with a much lower investment than the installation of a new plant, represents one of the most cost-effective and reliable means of adding non-polluting generation to the power system. This is a global trend and, in our country, the Embalse Río Tercero nuclear power plant has already gone through this process and the Atucha I nuclear power plant is in preparation to do so. 

The pandemic that has been hitting humanity in recent years has been a painful experience, but it does not seem to have been worked through in order to rethink and reformulate the world we live in. Society is recovering in many areas by repeating the patterns of behaviour that brought us here, and the use of natural resources is no exception. Global coal-based power generation still has roughly the same share, close to 40%, as was the case forty years ago, with a generation volume that is now four times higher. 

Germany, at the forefront of the developed world, is gradually phasing out nuclear generation by compensating with gas, while maintaining the share of coal in the electricity mix. This behaviour stands in defiance of rationality as it is a country that relies on imported gas and, moreover, the current war in Europe will force it to use a far more expensive resource. 

Finally, it is a mistake to close the door on the nuclear option for power generation, especially for countries that cannot readily afford the huge investments associated with the upgrade of power grids involving extensions, interconnections, and digitalisation. Nuclear power plants can complement the growing incorporation of wind and solar power plants by providing the necessary flexibility and stability to power grids, which can then be revamped in a slower and more affordable fashion, while at the same time ensuring the necessary cutbacks in emissions needed to avoid drastic and damaging disruptions of our planet's climate. 

Carla Notari is Dean of the Dan Beninson Institute of Nuclear Technology, Lifetime Consultant to the National Atomic Energy Commission and Tenured Professor at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín.


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