Nuclear Power & Climate Change

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Do we only have a dozen years to stop climate change?

Climate-anxiety spreads, but are we too late to do anything? The numbers and trends regarding climate seem stark, even paralyzing, but the most important thing is to keep a cool head and act with purpose.

For the last several months, the public discussion and social media has had a lot of climate urgency; slogans, hashtags like #ActOnClimate and strict deadlines for solving the climate issue. On the background, there is at least the IPCC 1.5 degree climate report from late 2018, which explains how two degrees (Celsius) is different from 1.5 degrees warming, and what is the scale of the measures needed for staying under 1.5 degrees.

Some countries have also brought forth deadlines for coal combustion, the latest being Finland, whose Parliament enforced the law banning coal burning for energy by May 2029 in early 2019. Another fact is that if we continue on our current emissions levels, we will have used up the remaining 1.5 C emissions budget in roughly ten years.

We need results, fast

And man, I have to agree that the numbers and trends look dark. IPCC’s latest report presents four main scenarios. Even though none of them demand zero net emissions by 2030, the decline is unprecedentedly steep. In addition, the rich OECD countries are expected to show the way, and with good reason, and to do more than their share to make it fair.

The energy sector needs to cut emissions still faster, given that agriculture and land use sectors will likely have a tougher time cutting their emissions as fast.

None of what I’m saying is “climate alarmism”, but simply what the climate models and scenarios tell us. And their message is a logical repercussion from our climate actions “when we still had time.” Perhaps a better term would be climate inactions, as despite all the talking, there has been preciously little walking. Global emissions have kept on increasing.

Source: IPCC's (the Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change) report on global warming.

Do we need a deadline?

What does this strict 12-year deadline mean? Does it mean that anything that could take over 12 years to plan and implement should not even be started? What worries me the most in all this worry, hurry and unconditionality is that it seems to lead into this sort of thinking. So, if it takes more than 12 years to plan, licence and construct a large nuclear power plant, this “logic” implies that we should not do it.

This ‘nuclear is too slow’ argument has been around for years and years, even though it has been by far our fastest way to add low-carbon energy production.

If one scrutinizes this logic even a bit more carefully, its silliness is revealed in all its glory. If it indeed is the case that we should not start any projects that take over a decade – if the world needs to be “ready” by 2030 in this regard – then what does this imply? Soon we should not plan any more electric vehicle factories or component manufacturing plants?

In a couple years, no more new windfarms should enter environmental assessment and planning? We should cease to replace older wind turbines that come to end-of-life a couple years after that, because these would be finished too late, only after 2030?

Of course, we should do all those things. The world won’t end or be ready in 2030, nor in 2050, and even if it would (who knows, we could be hit by an asteroid any day), we can’t live and plan our future and construct our society assuming it does end at a certain date. People will die and be born, old infrastructure will constantly be replaced with new, life goes on and the circus comes to town every year. Still, the more we reduce emissions already since yesterday, the better the situation tomorrow will be, but this does not remove the need for long-term planning.

When I wake up on January 1st 2030 I am pretty sure that I would not be pleased if we had stopped making any long-term projects or planning regarding climate change in 2019 because “it was already too late for that”. How do I know this? From history. Today, in 2019, I am chronically disappointed for example on the fact that in 1993 the Finnish Parliament did not give political decision in principle for TVO and IVO to build a new nuclear reactor in Finland.

Had they given that permission back then, that reactor would likely have operated already for a decade or more, saving millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. It would have also kept at least some momentum going in nuclear construction in Finland and Europe.

Panic or planning?

Setting a strict deadline feels clear and enticing. When we have a clear goal and time limit, we can be more focused on achieving it, going through any obstacle. The problem is that society is complex and needs to stay operational every day. It is not possible for everyone to stop doing what they are doing and to concentrate on getting through the obstacles, no matter how badly it would be needed. It’s a bit like trying to hold one’s breath or trying to stop eating to reduce one’s emissions.  

But hurry we must, and enormous changes need to be made. And this is precisely why we need to think carefully what we do: We can’t afford big mistakes anymore. As we can learn from history, nuclear has been one of our best and most efficient ways to clean our energy systems. Instead of panicking, I recommend “a controlled sense of urgency”, mentioned in an article on this topic by Ben Heard. It means urgent thinking on how we could, among other things, build nuclear much easier and faster than we have managed in the west lately.

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