Valérie FaudonGeneral Delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN) and Vice President of the European Nuclear Society (ENS).
"The climate emergency, in other words the imperative need to fight global warming, is increasingly seen by public opinion as the foremost environmental challenge, in France and worldwide. "
Nuclear: A Low-Carbon Energy to Address the Climate Emergency
The debate on the ecological transition in France has once again placed the spotlight on the question of reducing the use of energies that emit carbon dioxide (CO2See Carbon Dioxid), namely fossil fuels. While it does not count as a renewable in the current state of its development, nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water... is nonetheless a carbon-free energy that helps reduce emissions. In this article, Valérie Faudon, General Delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN), offers her analysis.
The climate emergency, in other words the imperative need to fight global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change..., is increasingly seen by public opinion as the foremost environmental challenge, in France and worldwide. The fight involves reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions, in particular CO2, and therefore what is known as the “decarbonization” of the various energies we use.
Nuclear energy is a decarbonized energy – that is, it does not emit CO2 in the actual electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... generation process. For a comprehensive comparison of energies, experts have developed lifecycle assessments. In the case of nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output..., the process involves calculating the emissions resulting from the construction of a reactor, its operation for several decades and its dismantling, as well as the production of enriched uraniumGray, very dense radioactive metal that is relatively abundant in the Earth's crust and oceans in the form of UO2..., the reprocessing of fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... and the management of waste. On this basis, the production of 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of nuclear electricity anywhere in the world releases on average 12 grams of CO2 (and even less in France), going by the findings of widely accepted intergovernmental panel on climate change (ipcc)Body established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988...1 studies. This is roughly equivalent to a kilowatt-hour of wind power and lower than a kilowatt-hour of photovoltaic power (around 50 g). And it is naturally without comparison with the readings for natural gas (around 500 g) or coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... (around 1,000 g).
Let’s first look at the situation on a global scale. A first challenge is to decarbonize the electricity sector, which alone represents 40% of global emissions. Fossil fuels still account for more than 65% of power generation, with coal alone representing 40%. A second challenge is to meet growing demand. Most studies estimate that consumption will double by 2050, due to growth in the global population, the rise of emerging countries and the electrification of needs, with growing use of electric cars for instance. And let’s not forget that there are still 1 billion people who do not have access to electricity!
This dual challenge – decarbonize power generation and meet electricity demand – is immense: three years after the Paris AgreementOil contract under which the oil that is produced is shared between the state and the oil company..., CO2 emissions, instead of decreasing, are still increasing. Nuclear energy will be essential, along with renewables, in achieving the goal of decarbonization. This does not mean that the share of nuclear in the power generation mix will soar. Depending on the scenario, it will remain at the same level, just above 10%.
Now let’s look at some examples in Europe. Countries that have combined nuclear power and hydropower, such as Sweden and Switzerland, have rapidly reduced their emissions. By contrast, Germany will not achieve its climate goals. Despite massive investments in renewable energies, France’s neighbor across the Rhine has not been able, due to the premature closure of its nuclear power plants, to reduce the share of coal, which is stable at close to 40%. The phase-out of coal, so necessary in the struggle for the climate and against air pollution, will be a very long process.
In France, the large share of nuclear power in the mix (nearly 75%), combined with renewables (particularly hydropower), gives the country the lowest emissions per capita of the seven most developed powers. Substituting low-carbon renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... for low-carbon nuclear power in the electricity sector will not further reduce emissions. At worst, it could result in an increase in emissions, because the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy makes it necessary to maintain sufficient production resources available 24 hours a day. So the forecast scenario of bringing nuclear power down to 50% of the overall mix by 2025 (the original target) would have required keeping four coal-fired power plants and building 20 new gas-fired plants, all of them emitting large amounts of CO2. It is to avoid this risk that the target has been pushed back to 2035.
Admittedly, nuclear energy raises concerns. Major accidents have marked public opinion, which is also impacted by concerns about how nuclear waste can be managed. However, solutions exist, ranging from geological storage to control by an independent safety authority.
Nuclear energy has the potential to decarbonize the electricity sector more – and more quickly. Its flexibility, namely its capacity to increase or reduce output, would allow solar and wind power to develop while ensuring the security of supply. All low-carbon technologies (renewable, nuclear as well as carbon capture and storage) must be harnessed to respond to the climate emergency.
Valérie Faudon is General Delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN) and Vice President of the European Nuclear Society (ENS). She also teaches at the Public School of International Affairs at Sciences Po. After holding various management positions in groups in the United States and France, she served as Marketing Director of Areva from 2009 to 2012. Valérie is a graduate of École Polytechnique, École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, and the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. She also holds a Master of Science degree from Stanford University in California.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.