The leak by Greenpeace of more than 32,000 submissions to a landmark UN climate report reveals the extraordinary extent to which governments and companies around the world have been lobbying the international body to either slow down or adapt the drive to net zero carbon.
The documents show how a number of countries and organisations including Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are arguing that the world does not need to reduce the use of fossil fuels as quickly as the current draft of the report recommends while other countries say nuclear energy should be a vital part of the new recommendations.
Greenpeace’s decision to leak the documents comes at an embarrassing time for the British and Italian governments. They are jointly hosting the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
One of the most interesting themes to emerge from the leak is the contested role of nuclear in meeting our net zero targets. The strongest arguments were put by a number of Eastern European countries. They have requested that the report adopt a more positive stance on nuclear’s ability to meet climate targets. The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia all criticised one particular table in the report, which suggested nuclear could only deliver one out of 17 UN Sustainable Development goals.
India took a similar line, arguing that nuclear is an “established technology” with “good political backing except in a few countries”, yet “almost all the chapters contain a bias against nuclear energy.”
It’s safe to say nuclear power is controversial. Yet maybe it is time to reassess attitudes?
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Nuclear has been a key low carbon technology for over 60 years and is the second largest global source of low carbon energy, behind hydropower.
It’s a scalable technology which stands ready, alongside renewables, to decarbonise the world’s economy.
But the risk of nuclear accidents and the unresolved issue of radioactive waste disposal leaves many of us fearful. Anti-nuclear campaigners also argue that the high cost of building nuclear plants would be money better spent on renewables.
Some scientists, however, believe the general public doesn’t have a proportionate view on the risk associated with low level radiation.
According to Science Focus, coal-fired power stations routinely release more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power stations, owing to traces of uranium and thorium found in coal.
What’s more, for anyone who has watched HBO’s harrowing series on Chernobyl, findings from the UN in 2005 may come as a surprise.
According to assessments from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), just 43 deaths could be directly attributed to the worst nuclear disaster in history. A further 6000 people who were children at time of the accident developed thyroid cancer, but, owing to thyroid cancer’s good survival rate, 15 died. The UN state: “To date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effects in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure.”
Similarly, UNSCEAR says it doesn’t expect to see any discernible increase in illness in the general public attributable to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. According to Japanese authorities, one worker developed leukaemia while working in the clean-up operation while one other individual died of cancer after being exposed to radiation.
Decarbonising transport and home heating will require an enormous increase in electricity demands. And there appears to be a growing recognition from a number of international organisations that achieving net zero targets will not be possible without nuclear in the mix.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and the MIT Energy Initiative have all concluded that nuclear energy is a crucial component in any realistic transition to a low-carbon future that is also cost-efficient.
Nevertheless, COP26 targets require global co-operation and, when we look at positions on nuclear in nations across the world, it’s a decidedly mixed picture.
The US is the biggest producer of nuclear power which provides about 20% of the country’s electricity generation. France has the largest share of electricity generated by nuclear: roughly 75%, although it aims to cut this to 50% by 2035.
Around 50 nuclear reactors are currently under construction worldwide, mainly in China and India. Belarus, Bangladesh and Turkey are all constructing their first nuclear power plant.
But a long list of other countries remain opposed to this energy source. Nuclear power is illegal in Italy and Denmark while Germany plans to phase it out completely by 2022.
What about Britain’s stance?
Nuclear makes up a surprisingly small part of the UK’s net zero plan. At present about 20% of electricity comes from nuclear but the fleet is now being retired.
However, the recent energy supply crisis has highlighted the need for this reliable energy source – intensified by the fact that unusually low wind levels over the summer contributed to the current crisis.
Now ministers are now ramping up investment in nuclear. Earlier this week the PM announced an extra £120 million funding for research into “mini-nukes” as well as confirming the government will give the go-ahead to at least one more large-scale nuclear project – most likely Sizewell C and possibly Wylfa in Wales- over the coming weeks.
Nuclear looks as though it is here to stay. But it still needs to clean up its reputation.