In 2016, the Paris Agreement (also known as Paris climate accord) marked a turning point in the battle against climate change. World leaders united for the first time in history to legally ratify action against greenhouse gas pollution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Paris Agreement aims to respond to the global climate change threat by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.
From the electricity generation point of view, the challenge to meet the climate change target is enormous. At present 70% of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. To reach the goal defined by the Paris Agreement, which states that close to 80% of power will need to be produced with low carbon methods by 2050, the global community requires a radical transformation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is advocating for the adoption of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change. Hydro, wind and nuclear are all the power source with the lowest emission of CO2. Nuclear energy does not emit any greenhouse gas in operation. Its main carbon footprint comes primarily from the mining and enrichment of uranium. Other advantages of nuclear power include the competitive price (for building, operation, and maintenance), the little requirement of land unlike solar and wind, and ability to produce electricity around the clock.
But the disadvantages of nuclear technology are also apparent. Due to its safety and environment issues in the past, many people become highly skeptical about nuclear power plants. After all, nobody wants a ticking time point built in their backyard, if even it can help save the planet from climate disasters.
Industry and research institutes are working hard to address the problems. New, innovative reactors are being developed and tested around the globe. Take fast neutron reactors (or fast reactors) for example, their unique working mechanism allows them to reduce the total radiotoxicity of nuclear waste, and dramatically reduce the waste's lifetime. They can also use all or almost all of the fuel, which further minimize their environmental impact. When fully adopted by the international community, they can substantially increase the sustainability of nuclear power, reduce the amount of radioactive waste, and produce more electricity as compared to the traditional reactors.
All low carbon energy sources are crucial for meeting the goals stated in the climate change agreement. Nuclear power is the excellent complement to other renewables sources. Solar and wind power generation cannot provide energy continuously. Currently, fossil fuels power plants are the only option for backup power. Therefore developing safe, stable, and environmentally responsible nuclear energy solutions can make a difference. It can contribute to the human kind's transition to a low-carbon society in the near future.
Nuclear Power and Climate Change. Credit: IAEA