Last week the New York Times published an titled ‘How not to deal with climate change’, explaining that in the US, when a nuclear power plants have closed, its energy production has been almost entirely replaced with fossil fuels. Countries who have successfully moved from fossil fuel-dominated to low carbon power have done so with the help of nuclear and that without it, emissions either increase or fail to fall as quickly as elsewhere.
This low carbon blind spot doesn’t just affect some UK states. Until March 2011 Germany got about 25% of its electricity from nuclear power, using 17 reactors. This has now fallen to about 16% from eight reactors. Almost half of German electricity is generated from coal, with an increasing reliance on lignite – the dirtiest, most polluting type of coal.
Now there are reports from Germany that suggest its government is looking to water down its sector specific CO2 reduction targets and abandon plans to set out a timetable for ending coal-fired power production. This isn’t unexpected when you learn that Germany’s CO2 emissions from industry and power stations have diminished very little from 2008 to 2015, suggesting the target of a 20% reduction from 2007 levels by 2020 is not attainable.
In contrast, in recent months in the UK, coal’s contribution to the grid fell to zero for the first time in 130 years. Total UK emissions in 2014 were at an all-time low, with the reduction in greenhouse (35%) and CO2 (29%) on 1990 levels mainly due to a decrease in the use of coal for electricity generation.
In the UK, the need to meet strict carbon emission reduction targets is one of the reasons behind the Government’s plans for new nuclear. It has an ambition to phase out unabated coal generation by 2025 and to increase the amount of offshore wind as well as more interconnection and use of demand management technology.
In the final quarter last year official statistics show nuclear power accounting for 21% of the power produced in the UK. That is a year-on-year increase from 19%, and together with established hydro-power, intermittent renewables and biomass, contributes to an overall lower carbon mix of close to half of our power output for the first time.
The NIA is clear that no silver bullet exists to tackle climate change. Nuclear needs to work alongside renewable technologies as well as gas in the transition to a low-carbon energy sector. Indeed, the eight operating nuclear stations avoided some 49 MtCO2 in 2015 – that’s the equivalent of taking 78% of the UK’s cars off the road.
That is a massive and continuing contribution which should counteract the suggestion from some that the UK should turn its back on nuclear as well as fossil fuels. But, without it, the evidence points to a rise in energy bills as well as a rise, or, at least, a slower fall in emissions.
With 24GW of power output having retired in the last six years in the UK, the effective replacement of mostly coal fired power stations with lower carbon sources is a sign of progress. Yet the scale of the challenge seems often to be overlooked – replacing output no longer available, improving security of supply while reducing exposure to volatile commodity prices and doing so in a lower carbon way – remains a huge task.
Any country serious about moving to a low carbon energy system needs to ensure policies are driven by the facts and not prejudices. And the fact is that without nuclear power, it will be more difficult to drive down emissions and meet climate change objectives.