Does the Loss and Damage Fund Need Nuclear?

As the details of the fund are hashed out, it would be wise to make use of the obvious pathway that it creates for including nuclear energy as a climate solution.

Does the Loss and Damage Fund Need Nuclear?
Image Credit: UN Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Does the Loss and Damage Fund Need Nuclear?

COP27 marked a turning point for climate accountability. In one of the most overdue initiatives, on November 20, the conference closed with an announcement that participants had agreed to the creation of a “loss and damage” fund, which would compensate developing countries that have been experiencing the brunt of climate change, even though the biggest carbon emitters are developed countries.

The landmark loss and damage fund agreement is a promising step. It acknowledges the urgent need for climate relief in developing countries and creates an opportunity for high carbon-emitting countries to atone for decades of damage to developing countries.

To be sure, some critical questions about the fund remain unanswered: How will relief be implemented? How will the financing be distributed to developing countries? And who will cover the costs? But as parties to the agreement hash out those details, they would be wise to make use of the obvious pathway that the loss and damage fund agreement creates for including nuclear energy as a climate solution. Indeed, a failure to do so would be counterproductive.

Nuclear applications got more attention at COP27. For the first time in COP history, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had a pavilion that delegates could visit called “Atoms4Climate.” And Nuclear4Climate, a global coalition of nuclear organizations that advocate for nuclear energy, among which I was included, had a seat at the table to rebrand nuclear as a solution to a wide range of challenges highlighted by climate change beyond the production of carbon-free electricity.

The inclusion of nuclear energy could be a game changer for addressing climate relief in developing countries. Nuclear technology has several environmentally-friendly applications beyond energy that are critical, especially to developing regions — water desalination, hydrogen production for fertilizer, isotopes for medical treatments, crop resilience, and sanitation.

The implementation of nuclear science, energy, and technology in the ‘loss and damage fund’, for example, would reduce climate change by providing low-carbon routes to electricity generation, heat production, transportation, manufacturing/construction, agriculture, water availability, and industrial processes.

Is there a growing openness to nuclear?

Many nuclear advocates would have liked COP27 to go further than it did, but the meeting at least revealed some optimism about the inclusion of nuclear energy as a tool to help achieve net zero emissions. “Nuclear power is making a comeback - and in a strong fashion,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, an energy-neutral organization committed to shaping a secure and sustainable future for all.

According to the US. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, “the US sees enormous potential in nuclear power to advance our climate goals.” He announced two projects at COP27 that showcase the importance of small modular reactor technology to global decarbonization efforts. This is a tone shift from a few years ago when “at the state level, we had just a few pieces of legislation that were working themselves through state legislatures that would have been a big deal”, said Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main trade association of the U.S. nuclear energy industry..

In part, the shift comes down to the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, which has highlighted the importance of energy reliability and security. Many countries, including Japan, are considering extending the lifetime of the current reactor fleet, and the U.S. is already doing so. Other countries, including Poland, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands, are making plans to build new reactors. The motivation for retaining and/or implementing nuclear power in many of these countries is the need for clean energy as well as energy security.

Ukraine’s minister of energy, Herman Halushchenko, said “clean and affordable energy, green transition, economic growth, space colonization, and other human objectives for the 21st century are impossible if we do not guarantee the security of the energy sector.” He stressed the importance of small modular reactors as a way to offer energy security by incorporating ‘security by design concepts’ such as operating for extended periods of time without refueling, and building much of the plant underground, and added that “Russia’s war against Ukraine went far beyond Ukraine only” and that investments in small modular reactors are necessary for global energy security.

Who is interested, making progress, and showing success?

Jamaica is among the developing countries considering nuclear power. Just days before COP27, Daryl Vaz, Jamaica’s minister of science, energy, and technology, announced Jamaica’s interest in including nuclear power in the energy mix. The announcement comes as a possible solution for the region’s energy security issues. As a native of Jamaica and a nuclear engineer, I believe the adoption of nuclear energy would solve more than just energy security. Energy access, reliability, and affordability are also among the key issues that nuclear energy would also address. Currently, more than 90% of the energy used in the Caribbean comes from imported fossil fuels. And, if Jamaica sets out to incorporate nuclear power in the energy mix through financing under the ‘loss and damage’ fund, then Jamaica would blaze a trail for nuclear energy deployment in other island nations. Jamaica is not unfamiliar with nuclear technology as it has operated the Caribbean’s only nuclear reactor, SLOWPOKE-2, in operation since the 1980s. The existing expertise puts Jamaica in a good position to lead the development of nuclear energy in the Caribbean more broadly.

Wide adoption of nuclear power in developing countries will require innovation, in particular the development of small modular reactors, because they are well-suited to meeting the needs of regions with small energy grids, and they can be added in increments as demand grows.

Funding and international engagement could also go toward setting up the regulatory infrastructure that will be needed by countries beginning nuclear programs. Funding could also help government agencies to regulate nuclear safety and initiate conversations around licensing harmonization to accelerate the deployment of nuclear reactors.

Such engagement has precedent; Ghana decided to include nuclear power in its power mix in 2008. Then, in 2013, Ghana officially communicated its intention to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear power in a letter to the IAEA.

The IAEA then set out milestones in three phases, the completion of which would officially allow commissioning, operating, and decommissioning pathways for nuclear reactors. To date, Ghana has met all the Phase 1 nuclear infrastructure requirements and is hopeful about the continued commitment to subsequent phases. For efficient decarbonization of other countries, this model is worth considering, but it will need to proceed much faster.

The success of the United Arab Emirates as a previous newcomer to nuclear power illustrates a pathway for other newcomer countries considering nuclear power. With three large nuclear reactors in operation, and another under construction, “all four will provide 25% of the country’s clean electricity,” said H.E. Mohammed Al Hammadi, Managing Director and CEO of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.

Can the ‘just energy transition’ succeed without nuclear?

Even with the clear domino effect that nuclear energy could have on global decarbonization and climate resilience, the energy-related decision out of the COP27 does not explicitly include nuclear energy. In response to the agreed consensus of the urgency to transform energy systems to be secure, reliable, and resilient, the language outlined in the decision simply refers to increasing “low-emission and renewable energy,” which is unclear. Nuclear energy checks all the boxes of being emissions-free, secure, reliable, and resilient, yet it is not well-oriented under the vaguely stated criteria of “low-emission and renewable energy.” Depending on the reader’s interpretation, it could be understood that the low-emissions source must also be renewable, or that low emissions sources and renewable energy sources are included.

The reluctance to unambiguously recognize nuclear energy as a resource for stabilizing the climate makes obvious the lack of real understanding of the climate crisis at hand. The criteria formulated at COP 27 for energy decisions should have been ‘technology-neutral low-emission energy,’ which includes nuclear energy, as opposed to only including renewable energy.

It will be next to impossible to achieve large-scale climate relief without nuclear energy. The landmark ‘loss and damage fund’ agreement is very promising because it at least acknowledges the need and urgency for climate relief in developing countries. It will require international collaboration for the deployment of nuclear energy in conjunction with the efforts of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But make no mistake, if nuclear energy is not included in the strategy, the ‘loss and damage fund’ agreement will fail.

Article Image Credit: "UNFCCC_COP27_19Nov22_CivilSocietyActions_KiaraWorth-4" by UN Climate is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0