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CEE: a very exciting region that may provide global leadership – interview with NEA Director-General William D. Magwood

Nuclear energy is nowadays the first source of low-carbon electricity in many countries, generating around 28 per cent of the electricity produced in the European Union. Although the International Energy Agency has predicted that an annual average of 15 gigawatts (GW) of new nuclear capacity is needed by 2040, many countries are planning to phase it out.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with William D. Magwood IV, Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) about the importance of nuclear to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and in particular Central and Eastern European countries, whose creative and innovative approach may turn them in the global leaders of the future.

“Every country really has to make its own decisions about the future of energy,” Mr Magwood begins. “Each country has a different situation, different policies and they have to decide for themselves how to go further with the energy transition. There is no solution that fits everybody, but each country must exploit its local resources.”

He explains that globally, nuclear is definitely going to be part of the solution because it is the only large scale dispatchable resource that doesn’t emit CO2 and operates reliably 24 hours per day.

“Countries that are looking at ways to decrease CO2 emissions are also looking at how to maintain economic prosperity and the safety of people and here renewable energy sources (RES) will play a major role,” he says. “The future is going to be a combination of RES and other resources (like hydro, nuclear or natural gas).”

That’s the case of Central and Eastern European countries whose National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) include both higher share of nuclear and RES in their energy mix in order to reach the targets proposed in the EU Green Deal. However, when speaking about a green future sometimes it seems to be either nuclear or renewables, which is not necessarily true.

The NEA’s report The Costs of Decarbonisation: System Costs with High Shares of Nuclear and Renewables highlights that in the electricity systems of the future, all available low carbon generation options, nuclear energy, wind, solar photovoltaic (PV), hydroelectricity and, perhaps one day, fossil fuels with carbon capture, utilisation and sequestration, will need to work together in order to enable countries to meet their environmental goals in a cost-efficient manner.

“Nuclear and RES have to work together,” Mr Magwood echoes. “It is clear that we can get solar energy when the sun shines but there is no capacity during the night. We need to put together different resources to balance the outcome. Nuclear will play a large role in many countries due to its low emissions and low cost of the infrastructure for electricity production.”

In other words, what Mr Magwood insists on is that the risk of not including nuclear in the future energy mix is that we won’t meet the climate targets.

“There are consequences for those countries that limit their options, including increasing costs of energy, higher emissions and lower reliability,” he adds. “A large role for nuclear energy globally helps increase the chances we will meet decarbonisation targets.”

The green transition is not only about reducing CO2 emissions. It is also about decarbonising the electricity sector, providing clean sources of heating, replacing fossil fuels in the transport sector. And nuclear energy can play a role beyond electricity.

“Countries currently use nuclear for district heating and this can be expanded,” Mr Magwood notes. “Nuclear can also replace fossil fuels in industrial heating applications. Nuclear technologies will also be an excellent source of hydrogen production and may prove to be the most cost-effective way to produce large quantities of green hydrogen—though we still don’t know what role hydrogen might play in the future. In addition, it can also produce clean water through the process of desalination.”

And when it comes to NEA member countries, they work in an efficient way and use excellent technology. In particular, Mr Magwood defines the CEE region as one of the most exciting regions in the world with the highest concentration of countries planning to build new nuclear plants compared to any part of the world.

“We have many members in that region and, additionally, Bulgaria will become a member of the NEA in January 2021,” he mentions. “We are very supportive of what these countries are doing, they are creative and innovative. We have been working with many of them to address common issues related to the nuclear energy future and are developing a framework known as the Regional Initiative for Nuclear Advancement (RINA).”

According to him, so far the biggest challenge for all of them is the lack of trained people who can support the human capital needs of the future.

“Overall, it is a very exciting region and it may provide global leadership in many areas of the future,” he says.

In fact, of all the nuclear power plants worldwide, more than 40 are located in CEE. Ukraine tops the list while Slovakia is the country that relies the most on nuclear (followed by Hungary). Also, the Czech Republic has a very aggressive nuclear policy and Belarus’ new unit has just started to be operative.

Yet, there are mixed reactions when it comes to nuclear safety and environmental challenges. Even after environmental impact assets have been approved and independent regulators have assured the safety of the plants, many people are afraid of nuclear energy connecting it with the word disaster.

“According to some polls, nuclear is seen as a very good source of electricity,” Mr Magwood points out. “According to others, people do not even know that nuclear doesn’t emit CO2.”

The reason behind is, according to Mr Magwood, that industry and governments do not communicate the facts effectively and many prefer to stay silent because they do not want the debate.

“Nuclear is extremely safe today,” he says. “Waste is a challenge, yes, but we know how to manage and dispose of nuclear waste and we have recently issued a report to highlight this.”

According to the above-mentioned report, after decades of research, the international scientific community is now confident that placing high-level radioactive waste in deep geological repositories (DGRs) is both safe and effective and the government of each country has the absolute right and responsibility to implement the energy and environmental policies it believes are best. Furthermore, the possibility of finding suitable sites for a DGR is no longer a question as suitable sites have been identified in a variety of rock types.

“One thing that we see everywhere is that people that live close to nuclear power plants, within a range of 5-10 kilometres, think very highly of nuclear while people that live far away have more concerns and fears,” Mr Magwood observes. “People who live close to the plants receive much more factual information about nuclear energy and often know people, friends and neighbours, who work at the plants.”

So at the end of the day, to him it is all a matter of communication, especially now that people are thinking about climate change, many also understand that nuclear is part of the solution.

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