Silenced at COP26—here's what nuclear can do next
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
A tweet last week announced that three nuclear groups were denied participation in the Green Zone at the upcoming COP26 climate conference.
The Green Zone is a platform that allows different stakeholders to communicate their message to the conference and to the general public, promoting greater dialogue and awareness.
The decision not to include nuclear groups sent the wrong signal—that nuclear is not welcome at crucial parts of the climate conference. Rejecting nuclear applications to participate in Green Zone activities prevents the industry from having a voice during these important discussions.
The response from the industry was perhaps best summarized in a heartfelt letter from Dr. Sama Bilbao (Director General, World Nuclear Association) to the Rt. Honourable Alok Sharma (President, COP26). In the letter, Bilbao urges organizers of COP26 to treat nuclear energy fairly and ensure it is well represented alongside other low-carbon energy sources.
The ramifications of this decision were felt by our entire industry and continue to reverberate—with concerns about what the future of nuclear could look like if misconceptions about it persist.
Why COP26 is wrong to exclude nuclear
There is a myriad of reasons why the decision by COP26 organizers to shut out nuclear from this part of the conference was a mistake, but here are just three:
We need nuclear. Nuclear power provides 10% of the world’s electricity, is the second largest source of clean energy in the world and is responsible for preventing 2.5 gigatons of CO2 emissions from being released into the environment every year. It provides steady baseload power 365 days a year when the sun isn’t shining and in the absence of wind.
More than 30 countries worldwide have adopted nuclear technology as a source of affordable and reliable electricity that contributes to their goals to achieve carbon neutrality.
There is no alternative. Countries that have phased out nuclear have discovered that there is no existing alternative to provide clean, reliable, baseload power at scale. As a result, those countries have had to resort to increased use of fossil fuels to compensate.
Take Germany, for instance. That country responded to the Fukushima incident by powering down their nuclear generating stations, and was forced to replace them by ramping up fossil fuel plants. The decision led to an increase in GHG emissions, rising electricity prices, and threat of an electricity shortage.
A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, an American think tank, estimated that the annual cost of Germany’s nuclear phase out is $12 billion, most of which is the result of increased mortality risk from the increase in air pollution.
Experts agree: we need to leverage all of the tools we have today to tackle climate change. Countless reports have emphasized the important role that nuclear will play in our pursuit of net zero.
Any debate among the experts is over—there simply is no net-zero future without nuclear.
In its recent report laying out a path to net zero, the International Energy Agency (IEA) offered a clear view of this consensus, stating that in their forecast, “nuclear power makes a significant contribution to net zero, its output rising steadily by 40% to 2030 and doubling by 2050”. And in a report last week, the UN put it even more bluntly: “International climate objectives will not be met if nuclear power is excluded”.
Nuclear still has a long way to go
If I have learnt anything from this, it’s that nuclear still has a long way to go. Our industry tends to be insular with our communications efforts, but one fact remains blazingly clear—we need to do a better job talking to people outside our industry.
We need to start influencing change.
Here’s what we can do start advocating more effectively:
1. Nuclear needs to have a bigger presence during climate conferences. Organizations need to support and even sponsor their employees to attend these events, to listen and engage (even when not invited to the party!).
And they also must encourage employees to use their voices to spread awareness and dispel misconceptions with facts and hard data but also through creativity, empathy and storytelling.
We need to have the courage to speak up and speak loud.
2. We need to step up our nuclear advocacy efforts. If our industry wants to reach a broader audience, we need to take more risks and adopt more non-traditional advocacy efforts, leveraging all forms of media (including channels like TikTok, Reddit, etc.) and harnessing the power of influencers (like Isodope) whenever we can.
3. Nuclear organizations worldwide need to band together and launch an effective and strategic pro-nuclear campaign. Currently, the individual efforts of industry, NGOs, and nuclear supporters are failing to reach critical mass.
This piecemeal approach simply isn’t working. In the meantime, our industry continues to be adversely impacted by decades of anti-nuclear propaganda which allow misconceptions to persist. The nuclear industry should come together and launch their own campaign that promotes the benefits of nuclear.
Perhaps it’s too late to change the decision that was made at COP26. But it’s just one conference, and there will be others. More importantly, there will be more chances for us improve our advocacy efforts and use our influence to redefine the narrative of this industry.
But if it’s going to work, we need to do it together.
Written by Susie Ho, former Senior Advisor at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.