Last week’s Flame event in Amsterdam was a welcome return to physical conferences for many participants after two years of staring at screens. The agenda naturally focused on the gas industry but this still left plenty of time for discussion about the clean energy transition and the prospects for low carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
Inevitably the fallout and disruptive consequences of the invasion of Ukraine loomed large in most sessions. High level speakers from across the energy industry analysed the impact which the rapid replacement of Russian oil and gas will have on the energy policies of countries throughout Europe.
In the last three months concerns about the security of energy supply have understandably become the most important issue for the governments of countries which depend heavily on imports from Russia. Nevertheless the urgency of the need to accelerate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions remains undimmed and was widely acknowledged.
I was particularly encouraged that all the speakers in the policy debate in which I took part accepted that the path to net zero must include expansion of renewables, a continuing role for gas though not for unabated coal, rapid deployment of hydrogen and as well as investment in more nuclear capacity. As ever greater energy efficiency, the one true no regrets solution, remains a top priority.
This debate posed the question “Is nuclear is making a comeback or is this just a mirage?” The background for nuclear is certainly better than at any time in this century. Climate change is driving the phaseout of coal and recent events are a reminder that gas is not always as readily available or as cheap as consumers would like.
The merits of nuclear as a reliable source of dispatchable very low carbon baseload electricity, with stable operating costs and diverse fuel suppliers therefore now look attractive. Coupled with the outstanding safety record of the latest nuclear technologies this ought to facilitate a nuclear comeback.
Although it is too early to be sure the positive signs are increasing. The UK, for example, which three decades ago abandoned nuclear in favour of the dash for gas, has set an ambitious target for building new nuclear plants in the next 25 years.
Within the EU France has reversed its decision to run down its dependence on nuclear and several East and Central European member states are actively considering developing nuclear capacity. Further afield China and India are expanding their nuclear capability while other countries in Asia and the Middle East are showing interest.
Of course opposition remains strong and the waste issue has not yet been fully resolved. But as the climate threat grows relentlessly more serious it is hard to see how it can be solved in the next fifty years without expansion of nuclear.
How big the comeback is will be affected by how far the cost of carbon capture and storage falls and how fast the carbon price continues to rise. Right now however the best judgment is that nuclear will be a bigger part of the global energy mix in 2050 than it is today.