By Dan Yurman
According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), World Environment Day (WED) occurs on the 5th of June every year, and is the United Nation’s principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of our environment.
First held in 1974, it has been a flagship campaign for raising awareness on emerging environmental issues from marine pollution, human overpopulation, and global warming, to sustainable consumption and wildlife crime.
WED has grown to become a global platform for public outreach, with participation from over 143 countries annually. Each year, WED has a new theme that major corporations, NGOs, communities, governments and celebrities worldwide adopt to advocate environmental causes.
WED Misses the Boat on Nuclear Energy
With all of the emphasis on global warming, and the relatively untapped potential to use CO2 emission-free nuclear power to slow the releases of greenhouse gas emissions, one would think that WED would include something about its role. However, a review of the current WED activities, and those in the past, reveal virtual silence on the subject.
In 2018 WED is concerned with the spread of plastics in the world’s oceans. While this is a commendable goal, it is irrelevant to the issue of how nuclear energy can help address global warming. Perhaps as a suggestion, the UNEP could make public data on CO2 emissions per capita for the world’s nations.
As a comparison, it would be helpful to drive home the point about nuclear energy to publish a related index that ties CO2 emissions per capita to energy sources by country.
Countries Launch a Nuclear Innovation Initiative
Not all is lost. Some countries, aware of rising CO2 emissions, and despite the silence of the UNEP on global warming, have announced an effort at international cooperation to develop nuclear energy for both industrialized and developing nations.
At the 9th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM9) meeting help in Denmark last month, a new nuclear innovation partnership was announced under the leadership of the United States, Canada, and Japan.
Called “Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future (NICE Future),” the initiative will, for the first time, put the spotlight at CEM9 on nuclear energy in clean energy systems.
U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Canadian Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources Kim Rudd, and Japanese Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Masaki Ogushi jointly launched the NICE Future initiative at the Ninth CEM in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The NICE Future initiative will address improved power system integration through innovative, integrated, and advanced energy systems and applications, such as nuclear-renewable systems, combined uses of heat and power, hydrogen production, and industrial decarbonization.
It will highlight the opportunities for nuclear energy technologies to reduce emissions and air pollution from power generation, industry, and end-use sectors.
U.S. Lead Statement
U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Brouillette led off a press event saying, “I would like to acknowledge the countries and organizations that have joined the United States, Canada, and Japan in the creation and launch of the NICE Future initiative.”
“Secretary Rick Perry and I are quite proud of this initiative and the ambitious program it sets forth. Having nuclear included at the Clean Energy Ministerial will create greater global recognition of its many unique benefits.”
He pointed out that nuclear energy is an important contributor to global clean energy supply, both as a primary source of clean energy and by enabling other clean energy sources. Globally, nuclear energy produces nearly one-third of the world’s emissions-free electricity.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has also found that global nuclear energy generation would need to double from current levels by 2040 to meet global clean energy goals.
“The NICE Future initiative highlights these contributions by reimagining nuclear’s advanced uses and applications. Nuclear provides a cleaner, safer, more reliable, and more resilient energy supply for our world,” Brouillette said.
The issue that invariably comes up at these high sounding diplomatic confabs is that the lofty rhetoric is often contrasted with the stark realities that the effort is trying to address.
While DOE officials are extoling nuclear energy’s benefits in Denmark, in the U.S. the Trump administration is strangling scientific expertise within the government which is trying to address global warming.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt, who hails from oil-rich Oklahoma, has virtually wiped out the agency’s expertise on the subject. His demolition of the agency’s capabilities follows the White House policy lead which withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord in August 2017.
Meanwhile, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, and others, an increasing number of nuclear reactors in the U.S., more than a dozen, are at risk of closing due to the low price of natural gas. As reactors close more gas plants open increasing CO2 emissions.
Four plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania are the latest to succumb to this market induced trend. The state legislators in both states have done next to nothing to address the issue. Terrified of the political consequences of rapidly raising rates, they have more or less sat on their hands while First Energy’s finances turned into a world class bankruptcy.
By comparison the States of New York, New Jersey, and Illinois have enacted measures to support zero emission credits (ZEC) to keep their plants open.
Paradoxically in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has support ZEC measures to upstate plants but continued his campaign to close the Indian Point plant (2200 MW) located just north of New York City. Cuomo’s campaign has come at the behest of well-heeled green groups that represent a source, among others, of campaign contributions to Cuomo’s election and his rumored ambitions for higher office.
Canada’s Strong Nuclear Industry is in the Mix
Kim Rudd, Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources said in regard to NICE, “Canada is excited to be a part of this initiative. Nuclear energy is already an important part of Canada’s energy mix and innovative nuclear technologies, including Small Modular Reactors, have a key role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
According to the World Nuclear Association, the situation is different north of the U.S. border. About 15% of Canada’s electricity comes from nuclear power, with 19 reactors mostly in Ontario providing 13.5 GWe of power capacity.
For many years Canada has been a leader in nuclear research and technology, exporting reactor systems developed in Canada as well as a high proportion of the world supply of radioisotopes used in medical diagnosis and cancer therapy.
Japan Strives to Make Nuclear 20% of Its Energy Supply
Japanese Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Masaki Ogushi stated, “I expect this initiative would bring the wisdom of the world on nuclear innovation together, and contribute to policymaking for realizing clean-energy systems that solve challenges in each country.”
“Our aim is to promote nuclear innovation utilizing out-of-the-box ideas from the private sector, pursuing the development of reactors with new concepts, including harmonization with renewable energy, combined with enhanced safety, efficiency, and flexibility.”
A Japanese government energy planning panel said in April that, despite lingering Fukushima related fears that have hobble reactor restarts, the country should be building new nuclear plants to help meet long-term emissions targets. [IAEA TABLE: Status of nuclear reactors in Japan]
It said that the country should rapidly develop new reactor designs that are safer and cheaper to operate. The panel also called for accelerating development in hydrogen, produced by nuclear reactors, and in energy storage technology.
At the same time, the panel said that Japan should reduce its dependence on nuclear power, shift from coal to gas and boost renewable energy. In the past Japan’s heavy dependence on nuclear energy was driven by global competition, primarily with China, for oil and other fossil fuels.
Japan’s once high-profile plan for a “plutonium economy,” based on reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into mixed oxide fuel (MOX), or for use in fast reactors, has not been successful. In December 2016, the government called it quits with its Monju fast-breeder reactor project. The project has been plagued by accidents, management transparency issues, and huge cost overruns. It never achieved its expected levels of performance.
Yet, the panel, in pushing for new, advanced reactors, went further than the current policy of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).
Shogo Tanaka, director of the METI energy strategy office told Reuters, “The report does not specifically talk about possible building of new reactors or replacing existing reactors, but it does not deny such a possibility either.”
This is a bit of hand wringing which recognizes that recognizes several nuclear reactors were under construction in March 2011, at the time of the Fukushima crisis, and that the utilities building them want to see them completed and in revenue service. Still, this is a change from a year ago when the government went out of its way to deny that there was any consideration of completing these units.
UAE is a Nuclear Energy Leader in the Mideast
Others involved with the NICE initiative noted nuclear energy’s strategic benefits. Dr. Matar Al Neyadi, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Energy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said, “Nuclear energy in the UAE plays a strategic role as a clean energy source that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector, diversify our energy portfolio, and is already creating highly-skilled employment opportunities which support long-term sustainability.”
The UAE is building four South Korean designed 1400 MW PWRs at a coastal site on the Persian Gulf. The first unit is expected to enter revenue serviced in late 2019. Three other units are expected to connect to the grid at regular intervals. The first unit was expected to start in May 2017, but fuel loading has been twice delayed due to the results of operational readiness reviews which reportedly surfaced issues related to plant equipment as installed and staff training.
Once in operation, the total of 5600 MW of nuclear power will replace natural gas units and also power desalinization of water for industrial and domestic use.
Poland Continues to Explore Nuclear Energy
Michal Kurtyka, Poland’s Secretary of State, said, “This initiative will help spur exchanges on technology development, expanding innovative, clean-energy options that can grow our economy and advance our energy security.”
Poland has blown hot and cold about replacing its aging fleet of coal fired plants with nuclear reactors. Last February Poland’s Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski said that the government will decide later this year whether to build its first nuclear power plant to lower carbon emissions as part of a plan to reduce dependence on coal in the long term.
Poland, which uses coal to generate most of its electricity, plans to lower the share of coal in its energy production by mid-century. As has been the case in other countries in Europe, like the Czech Republic, the government has struggled with how to finance $5-10 billion in new infrastructure and the political costs of guaranteeing rates to run the plant to break even or better for 60 years.
Poland’s state-run PGE, Poland’s biggest power producer, is expected to be responsible for the nuclear project. Approval was expected to be taken last year, but the financing of the nuclear power plant remains a problem. In the end the government must guarantee that the money will be there to complete the project once it breaks ground.
The energy ministry is also looking at possibilities to deploy smaller, lower cost, high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors (HTGR) in the future in addition to conventional light-water reactors.
U.K. Commitment to Nuclear Energy is Clear
With regard to the NICE initiative, Richard Harrington, Business and Industry Minister of the United Kingdom said, “Today’s pivotal global initiative continues an essential dialogue on the role of nuclear in the clean energy systems of the future.”
“Advancing innovative technology in nuclear will enable us to continue this momentum, and it is crucial that nations are coming together in this way to share expertise around this dynamic clean energy technology.”
According to the World Nuclear Association, The U.K. has 15 reactors generating about 21% of its electricity but almost half of this capacity is to be retired by 2025. The U.K .has implemented a very thorough assessment process for new reactor designs and their siting. The U.K. has privatized power generation and liberalized its electricity market, which together make major capital investments problematic.
The first of about 19 GWe of new-generation plants is expected to be online by 2025. The government aims to have 16 GWe of new nuclear capacity operating by 2030, with no restriction on foreign equity.
The country also has full fuel-cycle facilities including major reprocessing plants.
Countries participating in the NICE Future Initiative include the U.S., Canada, Japan, Argentina, Poland, Romania, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and the U.K. More countries have indicated strong interest. The International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) have noted their interest and support for the initiative.
In kind of an odd note, the U.S. DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory will serve as an initiative operating agent. Assuming that DOE is serious about its support of nuclear energy, why didn’t it assign this role to the Idaho National Laboratory which is the agency’s lead lab for nuclear R&D?
Sidebar: Using Nuclear Science to Help Halt Illegal Trade in Ivory and Timber
World Environment Day in 2017 focused on fighting the illegal trade in wildlife products. This is because the trade of threatened or endangered species is of increasing global concern, and monitoring it could include using scientific measures.
By measuring stable isotopes in wildlife products such as ivory from endangered elephants, scientists can identify where the animal lived. This is the focus of a project sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that started in early 2017.
“Stable isotopes could play an important role in the protection of endangered species and threatened habitats,” said David Osborn, Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories. “Science-based tools can offer support to monitoring programs and confirm that statements of origin are accurate.”
The isotopic composition of ivory provides information about what an elephant ate and drank, providing scientists with information on the environment in which the animal lived. The stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in water have a characteristic global pattern: when an elephant drinks, the isotopic signature of that water is preserved in its tusks.
By analyzing the isotopic composition of ivory, scientists can determine the probable geographical origin of an elephant, which in turn could help enforcement agencies identify regions where poaching is taking place and enable them to allocate resources in the right areas to cut off the ivory trade at its root. Certain isotopes can also provide information on the age of ivory and could help assess whether the animal was killed before the ban on trade was implemented.
The same methods can be applied to the illegal trade of protected wood species. International timber eco-certifications are not always reliable due to the lack of trustworthy information as to the exact source of timber, information which is necessary to verify that it is harvested sustainably. The hydrogen isotopic composition of wood reflects the hydrogen isotopic signal of rainfall revealing where the tree was grown.
Dan Yurman has published a nuclear energy blog since 2007 and has contributed to the ANS Nuclear Cafe since 2010.
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