Air Pollution Control Equipment Services, Nuclear, Policy & Regulations

Under the Big Tent (Maybe)

Issue 7 and Volume 119.

By Brian Schimmoller, contributing editor

You may not see them, but many tents are being pitched around the world. A number of climate-related “circuses” are on the docket this year, and it’s an open question whether the circus strong men will let nuclear completely under the tent or if nuclear will be peaking in from the outside.

Circus #1 is the United Nations’ Sustainability Summit in New York in September, which will establish sustainable development goals to guide policy and funding for the next 15 years. The sustainable development goals are a follow-on to the millennium development goals formulated in 2000.

Energy is a core element of the proposed sustainable development goals: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.” And climate change gets prime billing as well: “We are determined to address decisively the threat posed by climate change and environmental degradation. The global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible international cooperation aimed at accelerating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Clearly, nuclear would have a role in this call for the “widest possible international cooperation,” right? Apparently not. As part of the targets laid out in a draft document published ahead of this year’s meetings, there is no mention of nuclear, although fossil energy gets a nod: “By 2030, enhance international cooperation to facilitate clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology….”

Tent #1 is looking rather exclusive.

Circus #2 is the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP21), or more simply, the Paris Climate Talks, scheduled for late November/early December. The goal of this gathering is to develop a new international agreement on climate – applicable to all countries – with an aim to keep global warming below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The current slate of greenhouse gas commitments, established by participating countries through the Kyoto Protocol in 2000, run out in 2020.

Interestingly, the Paris organizers are calling for “contributions” rather than “commitments” this time around, but the contributions have to go further than existing commitments. In somewhat of a marketing ploy, the Paris conference is intended to spark a “race to the top.” While COP21 appears to be taking a relatively agnostic view on solution pathways, nuclear is not overtly part of the race. I didn’t find any mention of nuclear on the COP21 web site.

So I guess we can say Tent #2 is open, but prime seating may not be available.

Circus #3 is the Clean Power Plan, the pending U.S. regulation that would cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30% from 2005 levels. The proposed regulation lays out four building blocks for achieving this goal.

Nuclear qualifies under the third building block – using more zero and low-emitting power sources – but the extent of the contribution may be limited. In setting the carbon intensity goal for each state, the proposed guideline already includes those nuclear plants in operation and those under construction. And for those plants under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina, it assumes they are already operating at 90% capacity factor, making the state’s carbon intensity goal more stringent than it otherwise would be.

In a nod to the importance of nuclear, the proposed rule recognizes that some nuclear plants are at risk of retiring due to economic or other forces. The carbon intensity target, therefore, enables states to add 6% of current nuclear electricity generation to the denominator of each state’s target. But at-risk plants are not evenly distributed across states, and the at-risk factor may have other unintended consequences. For example, if a state lost all its nuclear generation, it could replace only 6% of it with other zero-carbon resources and still meet the intensity target, but total carbon emissions would increase.

While there is reason to believe the final rule will modify the nuclear treatment to some extent, for now at least, the flaps on Tent #3 are up, but maybe only a few inches.

Some entities are trying to cast the tent support poles wider and raise the flaps further. In early May, for example, the presidents of almost 40 scientific and international societies – representing 50,000 members and 36 countries – signed the “Nuclear for Climate Declaration” at the International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants in Nice, France. The declaration calls on all nations to deploy the “widest possible portfolio of low-carbon technologies available, including nuclear energy, in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and meet other energy goals.”

Will that help? Theoretically, yes, but the scientific community making such proclamations does not equate to political action. We need those in charge to understand one of the subtle attractions of the circus: that all the participants have their own acts, but all are welcome under the big tent if they can perform.