The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic raging worlwide in a manner unprecedented in human history has major implications for the energy industry, particularly for the clean energy sector, which includes nuclear power for civilian use. The mechanics of this linkage is clear from the immediate effect of COVID-19 on the environment through a sharp reduction in carbon emissions owing to a fall in industrial activity. Moreover, the roots of this virus, as well as of some previous less deadly ones, are being traced by experts to the impact of climate change.
According to a World Economic Forum report, the increasing frequency of disease outbreaks is linked to climate change and biodiversity loss. The frequency of disease outbreaks has been increasing steadily and between 1980 and 2013 there were 12,012 recorded outbreaks, comprising 44 million individual cases affecting every country in the world. While a number of trends have contributed to this situation, including high levels of global travel, trade and connectivity, and high density living conditions, the links to climate change and biodiversity, however, are the most striking.
According to the report, while new technologies offer hope in the search for measures to counter disease, protecting the habitat must play a part too.
Deforestation has increased steadily over the past two decades and is linked to 31 per cent of outbreaks such as Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses. Deforestation drives wild animals out of their natural habitats and closer to human populations, creating a greater opportunity for diseases that spread from animals to humans.
In a more general way, climate change has altered and accelerated the transmission patterns of infectious diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue fever, and has caused human displacement. Movements of large groups to new locations, often under poor conditions, increases displaced populations’ vulnerability to diseases like measles, malaria, diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections.
All of this has increased the urgency for seeking out sustainable business models in which clean energy, including nuclear, plays a fundamental part. Experts meeting in New York earlier this month concluded that prevent further outbreaks like COVID-19, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen told the Guardian newspaper earlier this month that nature is sending humans a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. Leading scientists say that to prevent further outbreaks, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people. Andersen said that while the immediate priority was to protect people from COVID-19 and prevent its spread, the long-term response, however, must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss, drawing attention to environmental impacts, such as the Australian bushfires and broken heat records.
It is here that one should take into account that a thermal power plant produces emissions which are five to ten times higher than those of a nuclear power plant. The process of coal combustion results in the emission of almost all of the fuel’s naturally occurring radioactive materials into the surrounding environment.
On the other hand, the protective barriers of a nuclear power plant’s safety system effectively prevent the emission of radioactive materials and substances contained in the nuclear fuel and generated during the operation of the reactor. The radiation impact on the population from coal fired plants is approximately 20 times higher than that of nuclear plants of equal capacity.
It is in this context of the urgent issue of climate change, as well as the rising costs of nuclear technology, that attention must be focused on the role of cost-efficient small nuclear reactors (SMRs) in phasing away thermal power plants.