In the midst of the COP26 climate talks today, U.S. and Romanian officials stepped aside for a closed-door session in the conference’s Blue Zone, establishing an agreement for U.S. company NuScale to build a new kind of modular nuclear power plant in the southeastern European country. The company’s plants—designed to be quickly scaled up or down based on need—are intended to be quicker and cheaper to build than the traditional kind, with some considering them to be a promising alternative for countries seeking to wean themselves off fossil fuels.
John Hopkins, NuScale’s CEO sees the deal as part of an overall recognition that nuclear energy has a significant role in the global decarbonization. “I’ve seen a significant shift here,” Hopkins said, speaking to TIME from Glasgow this morning. “It used to be the only thing really discussed was renewables, but I think people are starting to be a little more pragmatic and understand that nuclear needs to be in the mix.”
But others at COP26 aren’t convinced that NuScale’s small reactors can help avoid climate catastrophe. NuScale’s inability to construct a commercially viable plant is cited by some as an indication that it has not yet built one. “We have to get everything done in the next 25 years,” says Tom Burke, co-founder of climate think tank E3G. “The idea that you’re going to scale up a technology you don’t even have yet, and it’s going to be commercially viable [in that time], just seems to me like la la land.”
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More broadly, the NuScale controversy underscores larger disagreements about nuclear power’s role in bringing the world to a post-carbon future. Institutions like the International Energy Agency claim that nuclear power, which has been declining for many years, must nearly double its size in the coming decades to achieve net zero emissions goals. The U.S. is now embracing nuclear energy as an option for developing nations, and announced yesterday it would spend $25 million on reactors in Kenya (Brazil), Indonesia, and Brazil. Russia’s environment minister told Reuters last month that the country planned to push for other nations at COP26 to acknowledge its nuclear power plants as environmentally friendly, while the Czech Republic, France and a slew of other European nations announced an “alliance” to promote nuclear energy (as well as natural gas) as sustainable investments under the E.U.’s upcoming climate finance rules.
However, there is fierce opposition to including nuclear power into a green energy plan. Germany, Belgium and Austria have been reducing the size of their nuclear industries for years. However, nations such as New Zealand and Austria are opposed to nuclear being considered a clean source of power along with solar and wind. Lukas Ross, Climate and Energy Justice Program Manager at Friends of the Earth U.S., points to ballooning costs for nuclear projects in the U.S. and the U.K., and calls the energy source a “distraction” and a waste of scarce resources compared with renewables like wind and solar. “[Nuclear] is too expensive and too slow to be relevant to the climate crisis,” says Ross.
Still, Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, says the economics of nuclear energy are improving thanks to new technology like NuScale’s modular reactors, and that fission energy can help the world’s electricity systems meet crucial “baseload” needs, providing a steady current of power even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Experts disagree with Paltsev’s assessment that baseload power is outdated and based on outdated assumptions regarding how grids function. And Paltsev admits that, despite nuclear’s apparent promise, the industry still must prove that the technology is safe and cost effective.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a rosy picture for nuclear,” Paltsev says. “But at the same time I think it should be taken seriously.”