Nuclear Shines Bright at COP26

Nuclear Shines Bright at COP26
(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
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For the past two weeks, the eyes of the world were focused on COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. UN climate gatherings are a unique blend of quiet international negotiations and a whirlwind of public announcements and programming from governments, businesses, and environmental stakeholders alike.  As an official accredited observer, the Chamber has been in the middle of it all, highlighting the work of the business community in driving climate solutions.   

Walking the halls of COP26, one can’t go far without bumping into young activists in bright blue shirts emblazoned with a simple request: “Let’s Talk About Nuclear.” Their accompanying social media hashtag—#NetZeroNeedsNuclear—speaks for itself, and is indisputable: achieving net-zero global emissions is simply not realistic without significant deployment of expanded nuclear generation. The activists and their allies seem to be getting their message across. As the conference winds down and we take stock of the most meaningful outcomes, strengthened support for nuclear energy is likely to emerge as a major COP26 success story. 

This stands in sharp contrast to prior meetings, where nuclear has long been ostracized despite its role as the world’s leading source of emissions-free energy. 

"This COP is perhaps the first where nuclear energy has a chair at the table, where it has been considered and has been able to exchange without the ideological burden that existed before," according to Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN-affiliated body responsible for promoting nuclear generation and safety. Just two years ago in Madrid, Grossi attended the annual COP (Conference of the Parties) “in spite of the general assumption that nuclear would not be welcome,” but now he says the tide is clearly turning.  

Enthusiastic support from the Biden Administration has provided a major boost. Here in Glasgow, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has evangelized for nuclear at event after event, describing nuclear as a “holy grail” climate solution thanks to its ability to provide dispatchable, clean power around the clock.  

The bullish rhetoric has been accompanied by numerous announcements, such as the Nuclear Futures Package, under which the State Department will partner with Poland, Kenya, Ukraine, Brazil, Indonesia, and other countries to support capacity building for expansion of nuclear power.  

In another important announcement, Oregon-based NuScale signed an agreement with Romania’s Nuclearelectrica to help deploy the first small modular reactors (SMR) in Europe.  In announcing the agreement, NuScale Chairman and CEO John Hopkins said, “While world leaders emphasize how critical this moment is in addressing climate change, NuScale’s SMR technology not only represents a pathway to meet Romania’s climate commitments, but also is a means to bolster local economic growth.”  The State Department hailed the agreement as a “pioneering step” that “will build significant momentum for reducing emissions across Europe.”  They continued, “with 30 coal power plants in the region, including seven in Romania, SMRs are ideally suited to replace this baseload power and employ many of the same workforce.” 

In addition, on November 9th the UK awarded Rolls Royce 210 million pounds to pursue design and regulatory approval of SMRs in the UK.   SMRs offer unique features and design advantages relative to traditional multi-billion dollar, gigawatt-plus size light water reactors, and efforts by the U.S. and UK governments to promote the technology represent the next step in the intensifying global race to deploy nuclear to advance climate and energy goals. Competition from Russia and China is significant—both have numerous SMR facilities under development, while China has announced plans to build at least 150 new reactors (both large and small) in the next 15 years—more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35 years, according to Bloomberg. 

Elsewhere in Europe, a coalition of 12 countries are calling for nuclear to receive a “green” designation under the continent’s forthcoming sustainable finance taxonomy, thereby enabling cheaper build costs and EU economic support. While Germany continues to oppose the designation as it inexplicably works to close its remaining reactors over the next year, advocates remain optimistic. An EU industry representative recently commented that the shift is due to a combination of stringent emissions targets and the economic and security implications of record high natural gas prices in Europe: “we have more and more member states recognizing that, in order to achieve the decarbonization goals, we need nuclear in the mix…But also [because of] the recent energy crisis, I think more and more people are starting to recognize the risk of depending on imports.”  

Add it all up, and the conclusion is clear: while the case for nuclear power has always been strong, growing political support from governments, businesses, and environmental interests alike is making it stronger. To reach our ambitious global climate objectives, we need every tool in the toolbox to reduce emissions, and including nuclear energy needs to be a priority. Of course, COP26 is just a brief moment in time, and momentum will need to be sustained. So pass it on: #NetZeroNeedsNuclear. 


Dan Byers is vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute.

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