Net zero needs nuclear

Without new nuclear there can be no net zero, and perceptions must change, says Nuclear Institute Young Generation Network volunteer Vicki Dingwall

Nuclear plants have provided clean, reliable low-carbon energy for over 65 years, and nuclear is the second-largest source of low-carbon energy globally, after hydropower.

The science is clear: to reach our net-zero targets while meeting rapidly increasing energy demands, the continued deployment of new nuclear plants will be critical as the world phases out fossil fuels and integrates a higher share of variable renewables into its energy system. This is the consensus among major international institutions, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which indicated in its Global Warming of 1.5°C Special Report that a global increase of nuclear output of between 98% and 501% is required by 2050.

Perceptions of nuclear

The IPCC recognises the incredibly low lifetime emissions of nuclear power and shows it to be similar to wind and hydropower. Indeed, France, which produces approximately 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy, has the lowest per capita emissions of the world’s seven largest industrialised countries.

However, research shows that while the public is predominantly aware of nuclear power’s contribution in ensuring the security of the energy supply, its potential contribution to combating climate change is less recognised. It also shows that support for nuclear energy is generally correlated with experience of and knowledge about nuclear power.

So, what do we do?

How do we make sure that nuclear becomes part of the net-zero narrative?

Young Generation Network at COP26

The Young Generation Network (YGN) – the young members’ branch of the Nuclear Institute (NI) – has formed a team of volunteers to ensure young voices are heard in shaping the future of nuclear and driving collaboration between nuclear and renewable technology.

The diverse team of international volunteers has spent the 12 months prior to COP26 educating and inspiring others while advocating for nuclear. Having authored the Nuclear for Climate position paper to influence policymakers, it runs the social media campaign #netzeroneedsnuclear, which aims to dispel myths and show support for nuclear energy. It is also planning an ambitious timetable of activities at COP26 in conjunction with other industry supporters.

Beyond COP26

The NI YGN team also wants to inspire future generations into the industry. New nuclear development is required around the globe, meaning there is an urgent demand to grow the nuclear workforce. The nuclear industry is complex and supports a broad range of disciplines and roles, including power station operators, new build vendors and developers, healthcare scientists, and specialists in health and safety, radiation protection, decommissioning, waste management and fuel cycles, to name just a few.

The current nuclear workforce is ageing. In the UK, for example, the average nuclear engineer employee is 54 – in part because Hinkley Point C is the first new nuclear power station in the UK since 1995. As a result, there is a serious need to grow the workforce, close the skills gap and ensure vital industry knowledge is not lost. It is a similar picture when looking at many other prominent nuclear nations.

We need to make sure young people wantmto work in nuclear. The nuclear industry has suffered more than most when it comes to misguided negative public opinion due to common misconceptions and negative imagery. Historically, very little has been done to address this issue effectively. If we are to attract young, conscientious minds into nuclear, we need to rebrand the industry and promote it for what it is: a clean, abundant and inclusive energy source that will play a critical role in reaching our net-zero targets, while delivering sustainable global development.

The nuclear industry is also at the forefront of delivering and applying pioneering science and technology within a truly challenging but exciting field. Ensuring that this is understood and communicated effectively will help to attract and nurture some of the brightest minds. These minds will be so important when bringing new ways of thinking to the industry and driving forward innovation. It is equally important to ensure that diversity and inclusion are fully embraced and promoted.

Taking proactive steps to ensure the future nuclear workforce is open and accessible to all will be critical in growing the talent pool and making sure it is robust, harnessing a variety of different perspectives and approaches.

With the future of the climate on the line, we must continue to mobilise youth into action and inspire the next generation of nuclear leaders. And they will not only be responsible for driving the industry forward to new heights, but will also be climate champions.

By Vicki Dingwall, YGN Volunteer and Community Relations Manager, Hinkley Point C