Clean energy is the key to a sustainable and secure future – Keynote speech at the 15th European Nuclear Energy Forum

(Keynote speech at the 15th European Nuclear Energy Forum, Prague)

There is no more important topic in policy making today than energy. Energy is the key to a sustainable future.

As we are gathering here in Prague to talk about nuclear energy, others are gathering in Sharm el Sheikh to negotiate the global path to maintain a tolerable climate. Whilst combating climate change requires many drastic changes to our land use and consumption, clean energy is the key. The only way to get rid of fossil fuels is to build enough low-carbon energy production to replace those fossil fuels and the growing energy demand.

Later this year the leaders of the world are going to gather in Montreal to address another global, existential challenge: the loss of biodiversity. We are completely dependent on healthy ecosystems and nature for our economic and human wellbeing, and we need to turn the direction from depleting natural capital into accumulating it, living off its dividends. Here too, sustainable energy is the key. We need to minimize the environmental footprint of our energy production.

We need to minimize the environmental footprint of our energy production.

And most pressingly right now, brave Ukrainians are defending their country and freedom, repulsing the brutal attack by Russia in the frontlines of Ukraine but also suffering from the criminal terror against their civil society. Energy is a key part in this conflict as well. Energy is used by Russia in an attempt to blackmail us, and Russia tries to compensate for its failures in warfighting by targeting innocent civilians, now especially through destroying energy infrastructure. There is no return to cheap Russian fossil energy during or after this war. Thus, energy is also key for securing Europe. The most imminent issue of course is supporting Ukranians by supplying them with equipment necessary to repair the damages and recover their energy systems – and of course with weapons to fight as well.

So, clean, sustainable energy is the key. And nuclear energy is definitely part of the sustainable energy mix now and in the future as well. Nuclear energy is a safe, tried-and-true and reliable way of producing zero-carbon electricity and heat with a small environmental footprint in relation to the volume of energy produced.

In order to achieve so called deep decarbonization, full decoupling of our economies from carbon emissions in a world with growing population while eradicating poverty and nurturing nature, we need massive amounts of new, clean energy. Wind and solar are being deployed rapidly now, and that is great. We need lots of both, they do much of the heavy lifting in the global decarbonization effort. But intermittency and relatively low energy density remain their fundamental, physical challenges. Hydropower is important, and some amounts of bioenergy necessary, but both are limited by the need to preserve room for nature – and bioenergy also by the need to grow food and sequestrate and store carbon. Carbon capture, storage and utilization can buy fossil fuels some time, but don’t really help us with the energy security challenge.

So it is important to keep nuclear energy in the toolbox. But just how to do that?

Here I would like to bring up three points.

First and foremost, regulation should focus on ends over means. The favored ends are clear: human welfare and development that fits in ecologically and climatically sustainable boundaries. For energy sector this means producing sufficient energy without emissions and with as little harmful environmental impact as possible. Regulation should focus on these issues and work on system level. Put a price for carbon, valuate natural capital in the spirit endorsed by Sir Partha Dasgupta, utilize standards to minimize environmental impacts. The EU Emission Trading Scheme ETS is a success story. We should trust it more and strengthen it and embrace such cost-effective system level tools in general.

Regulation should focus on ends over means.

Hydrogen production is a good example: We have already a cap-and-trade-system in place for decarbonizing electricity production, and we need lots of hydrogen to decarbonize those industries and modes of transportation that are difficult to electrify directly. More specifically, we need clean hydrogen made with electrolyzers. No need for more artificial color labels to signal anything here: All electricity coming from the grid within ETS should be welcomed for hydrogen production.

A more fundamental issue is in general favoring renewable energy, implicitly or explicitly aiming for 100 % renewable energy system. A better, more scientifically sound goal is a fully decarbonized energy system. Not all renewable energy is sustainable, and not all sustainable energy is renewable. All forms of energy production have their pros and cons, different risks and benefits. These should be approached analytically and without biases. Once again: Focus on ends over means.

Not all renewable energy is sustainable, and not all sustainable energy is renewable.

Second, we should reconsider how we look at the energy economics. Nuclear energy is often dismissed as too expensive. There is some truth to that: if you want to add a megawatt of capacity to a well-functioning grid, wind or solar are easily cheapest ways to do that. But the necessary grid, balance and storage investments required by the increased volatility should be kept in mind when designing policies. We need to make sure that we have a robust energy strategy that takes us all the way to decarbonized energy system and avoid lock-in to a fossil-backed path. If our current market regulation isn’t taking us there, we need to fix it.

Third, the nuclear industry really needs to deliver on this decade. There is massive momentum now for a new nuclear renaissance, driven by energy crisis and climate crisis. There are exciting and very potential technological developments, especially regarding small modular reactors. Dozens of projects are ongoing for example in France, US, UK, Canada and here in Eastern central Europe too. Governments across Europe are eyeing on new nuclear. The industry must be able to deliver reliably and in-time.

This requires not just smart regulation but skill in design and project management and responsible attitude too. Transparency is essential, and there can be no cutting corners, especially on safety.

There is no time to lose public trust and interest. The nuclear renaissance failed already once in the West – cheap gas killed it back then – it must succeed this time.

I would also like to give some Finnish perspective on the matter. Our country can provide some valuable lessons regarding energy policy and nuclear energy. Some we’ve learned the easy way, some the hard way, and some lessons are still being processed.

Our four reactors from late 70’s and early 80’s have been granted or are assessed now for life-time extensions. They emphasize the importance of good care and maintenance. The fifth, Olkiluoto 3, already started running after over a decade of delays, but it is again facing some problems. It emphasizes the need for good project management and specification. The sixth, now canceled Hanhikivi was supposed to be built by a Russian state company. That was a horrible idea already back in 2014. This project emphasizes the importance of understanding geopolitical risks in energy policy.

Besides power plants, we have the final repository, Onkalo. It is planned to start operating in a couple of years. The lesson from Onkalo is that waste is not an unsolvable issue but a practical engineering challenge. Onkalo is also a success story in public engagement and local acceptance. Transparency, just distribution of economic benefits and giving local communities real power over decisions that affect them are key lessons here.

Transparency, just distribution of economic benefits and giving local communities real power over decisions that affect them are key lessons from Finland.

At the moment we are preparing a complete renewal of our nuclear legislation. It happens in an exciting time, as we are looking into possibilities of using small modular reactors not only for electricity but district and industrial heating as well. Finnish energy policy is far from perfect, but it is quite pragmatic and increasingly science driven. Being science-driven is tough for us politicians sometimes, as it requires the ability to change one’s mind as new knowledge is accumulated. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, and we don’t need new nuclear. But doing the math, it doesn’t look like that at the moment. Still, it’s important to keep your mind open, no matter where you stand now.

So, clean energy is the key to a sustainable future. And smart, science-driven energy policy with a system-level approach and a long term perspective is now needed to build that future.


Calling for a science-driven, ends-over-meas-approach to energy policy at the Prague Municipal House.