Nuclear power deserves a place in the clean energy mix

Khaled Abou Zahr

New technologies and their adoption have become more than just a business or an economic decision. They now have political and geopolitical importance too. This is very clear when we dig into the energy sector. We notice that the debate is not centered on facts and the simple equation of energy output versus emissions or negative impact in a time of greater environmental focus. It is measured by political gains and geopolitical agendas. There is a lot of hypocrisy and manipulation, to say the least.
In the political debate, the nuclear option has been sabotaged by elitist environmental thinking. They say that it is a dirty energy source despite the fact it does not emit carbon dioxide. In reality, it is one of the cleanest sources and should be a foundation of the energy mix, on top of which renewable energies can be added. This is why it was a good omen to see a special meeting on nuclear energy taking place this week during the UN’s COP28 climate summit in the UAE. The resulting commitment by the US and 21 other nations to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050 is a significant step toward achieving carbon emissions reduction targets. This pledge, supported by countries like France, the UAE, Ghana, South Korea, the UK and Canada, underscores the crucial role nuclear power must play in meeting national climate pledges and the targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. More importantly, it highlights the fact that nuclear energy should stand as one of the key pillars of the energy mix.
For decades, there have been attacks on nuclear energy by progressive and green parties. They are mainly based on two points: cost and security. The reality is that reducing the lifespan of nuclear plants without linking it to their actual capacity explodes the cost. Amortizing a plant over 30 years instead of 70, which is possible with the replacement of key components and some developments, makes a huge difference. Regarding security, the focus is mainly on nuclear waste and general operations. Here too, the risks have been greatly exaggerated. Despite historical incidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, advancements in technology and stricter regulations have made nuclear power safer than ever. Those who attack the nuclear power industry also avoid answering a simple question: how clean is the renewable energy supply chain from production to use and disposal? According to the US-based Solar Energy Industries Association, the turnover speed of solar panels is surpassing initial projections. And, with the current exorbitant costs associated with recycling, there is a genuine risk that all discarded panels, as well as similarly challenging-to-recycle wind turbines, may end up in landfills. So, basically, all energy sources have a waste issue. But the solution for nuclear waste is far better managed.
The same questions on carbon neutrality apply to the production and transport of renewable materials. This is also something that impacts electric batteries, from their manufacturing to their disposal. Environmental pundits focus on attacking and trying to cancel other sources of energy instead of answering these simple questions. Questions also arise on the geopolitical level, as the US and China are flitting between competition and confrontation. There are a growing number of voices in the US that state that solar and wind energy are reinforcing China within the great power competition. This is because, in 2022, China accounted for 77.8 percent of global photovoltaic module production. The country with the second-largest share was Vietnam, which accounted for just 6.4 percent. With the supply chain being centralized in China, this raises questions regarding energy dependency. This is also why many are stating that the fact the World Bank does not finance nuclear power projects puts China at an advantage, as it does finance solar and other renewable energy projects.
The debate on nuclear energy also sinks deep into domestic politics. France, which has been a pioneer of nuclear power, is a good example. Henri Proglio, the former CEO of EDF, discussed a few months ago France’s loss of energy independence in a think tank seminar. He highlighted historical efforts to achieve energy independence, blaming recent challenges on a shift in public opinion and European regulations favoring competition. He highlighted the historical success of the French nuclear industry, symbolized by it becoming an electricity exporter with competitive prices. Proglio also advocated for extending the lifespan of existing nuclear plants, considering them a base for energy production, and raised doubts about the viability and cost-effectiveness of offshore wind projects. Yet the bombshell he dropped was that he accused Germany of sabotaging French energy independence via the EU because it presented an industrial threat. He rightly criticized the challenges posed by the shift to renewables, particularly citing the German Energiewende and the substantial investments in wind energy. He stated that Berlin was concerned because its electricity relied heavily on coal and especially lignite, which is particularly bad for the environment. Germany has invested €600 billion ($646 billion) of the total €1 trillion invested in renewables by European countries, according to Proglio. This hefty investment led to the near-bankruptcy of major power companies E.ON and RWE, which were only saved by the federal government.
The reality is that it is simply impossible and unrealistic to shift to 100 percent renewable energies tomorrow, with Germany serving as a good example. This would simply mean the collapse of the global economy and security. Even the advocates of this solution know this is the case. It is now clear their real goal lies elsewhere. This is why there is an urgent need to actively push nuclear power’s place in the energy mix. Yet, after years of global bashing, the ability to turn this industry around is still hampered by a lack of funds, expertise and viable partnerships. Maybe the pledge made at COP28 will support the finding of a solution and promote collaboration instead of the petty settling of accounts.