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Explainer: The Role Of Nuclear Power In The Energy Transition :: Uganda Radionetwork

Explainer: The Role Of Nuclear Power In The Energy Transition

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Proponents argue that because nuclear energy does not require burning fossil fuels, it does not directly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change — which has led some to say that it could make the energy transition more feasible.
19 May 2024 17:10
Nuclear power plant in Bangladesh phto by ET EnergyWorld.
The International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS 2024) opens on Monday as countries ponder how to shift away from fossil fuels. Countries were in the past reluctant to discuss the role of nuclear energy technology in the Energy transition.

Energy transition refers to the global energy sector’s shift from fossil-based systems of energy production and consumption — including oil, natural gas, and coal — to renewable energy sources like wind solar, and lithium-ion batteries. 

The suggestion to have nuclear, as part of renewable energy sources has always generated debate. However, at the UN Climate Change in Dubai countries called for accelerating the deployment of low-emission technologies including nuclear energy to help achieve deep and rapid decarbonization. 

Decarbonization is the process of cutting or eliminating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by phasing out the use of fossil fuels and switching to renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectricity, and recently nuclear.   

Governments around the world are urgently seeking to decarbonize their economies whilst ensuring the security of energy supply. As a low-carbon electricity source, nuclear energy can contribute to clean energy capacity and emissions reductions between 2020 and 2050.

However, concerns about nuclear power’s safety and cost have clouded the technology’s role in the transition to clean energy. Some of those concerns are part of the ICONS 2024 agenda. 

The time has come for Nuclear Energy   

For supporters of nuclear energy, COP28 marked a watershed moment because it was the first time that countries including Uganda recognized the need to accelerate it among the low-emission technologies. Twenty-five countries pledged to triple nuclear power by 2050. 

A recent high-level conference on nuclear energy signaled a change in the political landscape about nuclear and energy transitions.

“I remember the days when you could not have simple conversations about nuclear energy at international energy conversations. People didn’t just want to talk about it. Even countries that were highly reliant on nuclear didn’t want to talk about it. That shows you how things have changed said Nuclear Energy Agency Director-General William D. Magwood IV. 

William D. Magwood spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council as part of the event to mark Planet Week on 28th April this year.

Magwood discussed how nuclear energy is experiencing a resurgence due to the research that shows that nuclear energy is an essential part of the energy mix if countries want to meet net-zero goals by 2050. 

"Many NEA member and non-member countries are taking substantial action to invest in new nuclear reactors and new technologies because nuclear energy has the ability to ensure energy security, mitigate climate change, and drive economic development,” he said.

He expressed optimism about nuclear energy's potential to shape a sustainable future.  “Nuclear energy has this window of opportunity to make a positive difference for the future," said William D. Magwood IV.  

Why Nuclear in Energy Transition? 

Proponents argue that because nuclear energy does not require burning fossil fuels, it does not directly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change — which has led some to say that it could make the energy transition more feasible. It has been found that while advancements in renewable energy sources like solar and wind are significant, the infrastructure and market aren't fully prepared to abandon fossil fuels immediately. 

That is why countries at COP28 said there is a need for bridge solutions, such as natural gas and nuclear power, to ensure energy security and economic stability during the clean energy transition. 

State of global Nuclear energy deployment

There are currently 393 gigawatts of nuclear energy around the world, making up 10% of the world’s electricity. That supply is coming from 444 nuclear energy reactors operating in thirty countries around the world. The Nuclear Energy Deficit The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released what it called the 90 Pathways to Net Zero. 

It said the world needs one thousand one hundred and sixty gigawatts by 2050 to contain climate change to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Other studies have said the global nuclear capacity needs to triple in the next three decades and that the world is not about to meet those targets. 

Reaching net zero will require clean electricity and clean fuels. Proponents of nuclear energy suggest that it provides both. That it provides reliable, dispatchable, and non-emitting electricity and baseload load electricity. With a wave of innovations like Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and nuclear-produced hydrogen, the nuclear energy sector can do so much more.

Uganda’s ambitions in nuclear energy 

Uganda launched its Energy Transition Strategy on the sidelines of COP28 in Dubai in December 2023. 

The strategy is based on Uganda’s ambitious plan to develop industrialize and meet the energy security plan as per the new energy policy launched in 2023. By 2040, Uganda plans to generate about 52000 megawatts of electricity. In real terms, that means that Uganda today is able to aggregate about 28000 megawatts excluding nuclear.

“So we are able to draw all our potential on the hydro side where we still have 4500 megawatts untapped, we have some geothermal about 1550 megawatts, we have some wind, solar and biomass. But we are able to generate up to 28000 megawatts,” Bateebe revealed. 

“So the shortfall between 52000 megawatts and 28000 megawatts shall be covered by nuclear 24000 megawatts. I know one will say we are ambitious with nuclear but that is the reality as we set to decarbonize,” Bateebe observed.

It appears that Uganda is determined to push further its nuclear ambitions. A team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Integrated Uranium Production Cycle Review (IUPCR) missions is in Uganda for follow-up. 

IUPCR has been in Uganda several times to advise in the development of infrastructure for national uranium production programs. Uganda has chosen to take a phased uranium production cycle.

Engineer Irene Bateebe told journalists that as part of the efforts to further Uganda’s expertise in nuclear energy, the Ministry of Energy is collaborating with the University of Soroti to set a center for nuclear science and technology. 

“We will be able to train Ugandans to understand the aspects of nuclear and be able to run this nuclear power plant