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Dealing With Carbon and Climate Change Through Nuclear Science and Technology

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IAEA's David Osborn, Geoffrey Shaw, and Ferenc Toth discuss carbon, its effects, and how to manage it.

Experts and delegates met to discuss carbon, climate change, and nuclear science at the Nuclear Science and Technology in Managing Carbon - From Ocean Acidification to Climate Change side event at the 58th IAEA General Conference, Vienna, Austria, 25 September 2014. (Photo: M. Madsen/IAEA)

Experts and delegates met to discuss carbon, climate change, and nuclear science at the Nuclear Science and Technology in Managing Carbon - From Ocean Acidification to Climate Change side event at the 58th IAEA General Conference, Vienna, Austria, 25 September 2014.

"Climate change is the defining issue of our time. If we do not take urgent action, all our plans for increased global prosperity and security will be undone," were the words of United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2014, and echoed by the IAEA's Geoffrey Shaw, Chair of the IAEA side event Nuclear Science and Technology in Managing Carbon - From Ocean Acidification to Climate Change held on 25 September 2014 during the 58th IAEA General Conference.

Hosted jointly by the IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications and Department of Nuclear Energy, the event brought speakers together to discuss the biggest culprit of climate change: carbon.

Carbon is an element and an essential building block in life. But one of its gas compounds, carbon dioxide (CO2), holds a special status for humans as it is produced each time we breathe. Furthermore it is a product of burning fossil fuels, like oil and coal, which drive our economies and improve our lives. However, the growing concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere also drives climate change on a global scale, as CO2's greenhouse gas property causes global temperatures to rise, and simultaneously makes our oceans more acidic.

The side event featured four presentations focusing on different aspects of the "carbon problem". They covered some of the effects and impacts of carbon on the environment and how nuclear science and technology can be used to understand it; the role of nuclear energy as a relatively low carbon alternative to fossil fuels and a way to mitigate carbon emissions; and the factors nuclear facilities will need to consider in addressing the climate change challenges.

The "Carbon Problem" and Tools to Understanding It

In the opening presentation, David Osborn, Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories, drove home the message that ocean acidification is a very real environmental problem that needs to be addressed by the international community. Ocean acidification occurs when CO2 mixes with water and forms carbonic acid that decreases the ocean's pH, increasing its acidity. Each person on Earth produces an annual average of 4.5 tons of CO2, 25-30 per cent of which are absorbed by our oceans. By the end of the 21st century, it is estimated that ocean acidity could increase by 150% since preindustrial levels, and that 70 per cent of the world's corals will have been exposed to corrosive water.

A more acidic ocean, explained Mr. Osborn, affects the calcification, reproduction and growth rates of many marine species. The global response to this ecological threat has led to the IAEA and other international organizations working to help the international community to address ocean acidification, said Mr. Osborn. He highlighted the efforts being made through the IAEA Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC). This project aims to communicate, promote and facilitate a series of overarching activities in science, capacity building and communication related to monitoring and understanding ocean acidification using nuclear science and technology.

Similarly, isotopic techniques, for example, can be used to quantify the carbon export in the ocean and also sedimentation rates, explained Juan-Carlos Miquel, Acting Laboratory Head of the IAEA Radioecology Laboratory, in his presentation on Removing Carbon - Nature's Role. He said that the oceans remove carbon from our atmosphere by locking it away in the deep ocean and on the seabed and nuclear tools like isotope techniques can measure the effects of this ocean phenomenon. This allows scientists to gather invaluable data that complements and validates more widely practiced but less empirical forms of measurement. These techniques also help give us an indication of how long ocean acidification and its harmful effects will linger even if we were to reduce CO2 emissions.

Mitigating CO2 Emissions and Its Risks

As CO2 continues to concentrate and have an impact on the environment, many countries are seeking avenues for mitigating its effects on climate change as well as finding alternatives to major CO2 producing sources like burning fossil fuels for energy. One area of focus is the energy sector where there is a growing interest in alternative energy producing sources such as nuclear power.

Nuclear power offers a potential alternative energy source for many countries, noted Zbigniew Kubacki, Director of Poland's Ministry of Economy's Nuclear Energy Department. Mr. Kubacki's presentation focused on the Polish nuclear energy programme as an example of how countries can make a national level shift toward adding nuclear power plants into their energy mix. He described how Poland considers nuclear power to be a low-carbon technology that assures stable prices and a steady energy supply, while also mitigating CO2 emissions and other air pollutants (sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide). Poland plans to implement nuclear power by 2030, while also contributing to the ambitious EU policy to reduce CO2 emissions by 95 per cent by 2050.

Climate change can also adversely affect energy generation systems, explained the event's final speaker, Ferenc Toth, Unit Head in the IAEA’s Planning and Economic Studies Section of the Department of Nuclear Energy. His presentation brought a warning about the realities nuclear, fossil, and renewable installations need to consider in a world with changing climate and more extreme and variable weather. For existing nuclear installations, careful planning -including increased maintenance, new procedures, and minor physical changes - may be used to adapt to new climate change challenges. For instance, preventing ice blockage of water intake can be as simple as diverting some hot water discharge from the cooling system back to the area around the intake. Future nuclear power plants can incorporate added measures through design, construction and/or maintenance to support “climate proofing”.

Concluding discussions reiterated that climate change is a serious environmental threat that must be faced. Nuclear science can help in better understanding the processes and impacts of climate change. Nuclear power, in particular, has a role to play in mitigating CO2 emissions and helping countries diversify their electricity production. And while climate change and an increasing rate of extreme weather events can affect nuclear power plants, careful planning can address and overcome these weaknesses.

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