Climate Revelry and Carbon Reduction Realities

Climate ambition is in bloom this Spring at the virtual climate summit. Global carbon reduction commitments are climbing. America again is leading.

Unfortunately, this well-worn form of international political performance masks the grinding realities of actually achieving the promised carbon cutbacks.

There is little doubt that no deep carbon reductions will occur without ambitious governmental commitments. But the issue is what happens when virtuous aspiration is exposed to corrosive realities like costs, politics, ingrained ideology, and tradeoffs.

Here is one small example of the ambition-reality challenge – a debate on the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change featuring two experts that both want to achieve zero-carbon.

Irrespective of one’s view of the value of nuclear energy, the reality is that it currently produces over 50% of the carbon-free electricity in the U.S. and 30% worldwide. It will be extremely difficult to replace the stable electricity output and the global carbon benefits if it is eliminated. So, objectively, the technology is part of the global climate solution set.

But the debate was not centered on these facts.

It quickly veered into the flaws of existing large-scale nuclear technology, from its beginning in uranium mining to spent fuel disposal. In between was discussion of the apprehensions created by cost, safety, and nonproliferation.

All these issues are real concerns, but they do not exist in isolation from the zero-carbon value. It doesn’t make much real-world sense to separate these two sides of the story to support arguments only in opposition to the technology. Especially in an environment where climate change is labeled as an “existential threat.”

The discussion then devolved into a debate on the benefits and flaws of next-generation nuclear power. Neither position was provable because there are tens of technologies, each with unique features, and virtually all are still conceptual.

However, the assertion that some types of U.S.-supported advanced reactors will be “breeder reactors” that “reprocess the fuel” and thereby create nuclear weapons proliferation dangers is premature and misleading.

The concern about the potential nuclear weapons proliferation proneness of advanced reactors is real and it needs to be effectively addressed. But the situation is complex because of the number of different designs.

The Global Nexus Initiative produced the foundational public report on the challenge of preventing proliferation from these reactors. Its bottom line was that they “will pose new challenges for the international non-proliferation and security regime…[but]…There is high confidence that these issues can be effectively resolved.”

The resolution of these issues will be through a combination of the IAEA, national governments and their laboratories, non-governmental experts, and the incorporation of features to limit proliferation potential by the reactor design community.

As the GNI analysis asserted, “There is high confidence that any of the advanced reactor concepts can be safeguarded to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.” The methods to achieve this goal are in development.

How these new standards are created will matter for global proliferation prevention. The U.S. and other democratic states have been stalwart in ensuring that non-proliferation be built into the core of civil nuclear commerce, even when it has impeded their ability to make reactor sales. Authoritarian governments like Russia and China do not have comparable commitments.

However, it is difficult to assert your high standards when pitching them in from the sidelines of the global nuclear market. So, the U.S. will need to have competitive next-gen nuclear technologies in order to effectively defend its nuclear security values.

One final point from that nuclear-climate debate, the assertion was made that “it’s entirely possible to meet the energy needs of the United States with renewable energy alone...[and]…it’s really all about politics at this point.”

The renewables claim may be theoretically true but creating an energy monoculture is a bad idea for a country as large, diverse, and globally important as the U.S. An over-reliance on one energy source can create vulnerabilities.

Also, as the moderator of the discussion noted, “wind farms require 360 times the land area to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear plants. Solar requires 75 times more space.” These facts will fuel political blow-back.

Climate ambition is in bloom this Spring, but a winter of hard implementation awaits. Avoiding spelling out specific actions and compromises at this summit will make it seem that there’s just more hot air being expelled at a time when greenhouse gasses are again defying gravity.

The nuclear-climate debate is just one example of the turbulent headwinds created when ambition meets reality. If even advocates of deep decarbonization cannot agree on the value of one of the world’s zero-carbon energy workhorses, that bodes ill for the ability to achieve the dramatic energy transformation that the summit’s new global carbon commitments will require.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security