National Nuclear Laboratory


Monday 16 August 2021

Countdown to COP26: nuclear’s younger generation driving action on climate change

With the urgency of the climate crisis, there is a growing public consciousness about the role each and every one of us can play in achieving net zero. Across NNL, our teams can be confident that they are making a positive difference within their daily roles. But there is also a groundswell of grassroots activism across the sector that is helping to drive change.  

Sophie Zienkiewicz, who joined the nuclear sector as part of NNL’s graduate programme in 2018, is one such individual playing a key role volunteering for the Nuclear Institute’s Young Generation Network (YGN), #Net Zero Needs Nuclear campaign. The campaign’s mission is to accelerate the ability of the world to achieve net zero by 2050 by driving collaboration between nuclear and renewable technology. For COP26 specifically, the campaign aims to bolster the case for nuclear to be a valuable part of the clean energy mix and is calling for a scientific and technology neutral approach at the event. 

Importantly, the UK’s COP presidency this year in Glasgow comes at a time when we are already seeing a step change in the way the nuclear sector is perceived externally. As Sophie sees it, this is down to a simple shared mission: net zero by 2050.

“Tangible to anyone within the sector, there is such a strong feeling of environmentalism within the nuclear community. When I left university and joined NNL, at the time I hadn’t necessarily done so with this altruism front of mind, but that quickly changed. Being immersed in the sector, there was a moment of: ‘Oh, I understand the why now’. Everyone I have met shares the same ambition to help save the planet from irreversible climate damage and I think it is what unifies us. We know that nuclear power needs to be part of the climate solution. Now I’ll be an advocate for nuclear energy for life. 

It’s that same genuine belief that drives the Net Zero Needs Nuclear campaign. It isn’t about promoting the value and potential of the sector for its own sake – we’re not driving a nuclear-only agenda. Our mission is about collaboration and helping to build the cross-sector engagement and support that will enable net zero, because we know that no one single energy source will solve it all by 2050. 

This reflects what I’ve found working at NNL too; of all our organisational values, collaboration is the strongest and most valuable. The more the sector is able to reach beyond the echo chamber and share our contributions more widely, the more successful we’ll be in changing opinions. Ultimately this is what will ensure new and existing nuclear technologies can make the difference towards global decarbonisation efforts. 

Over the past few years, I have seen the sense of pride from colleagues grow stronger as nuclear gains greater recognition from policy makers and influencers. This is the result of diligent, dogged determination to engage with a broader set of stakeholders – but that doesn’t mean that more isn’t still needed. With a problem this huge, the energy sector will all need to work together and we need to be doing that now. 

That is why it has been amazing to be part of the COP delivery team for Net Zero Needs Nuclear and harness some of the opportunity that comes from the event. It provides that point of focus for the work that we have been doing, and that we will continue to do well beyond this November. You can get in touch with people and sectors you previously might not have engaged with and say: ‘We’ve got these shared goals. Can we work together to amplify this important message?’.

As a grassroots movement, we can also work a bit differently to larger businesses and established organisations; in new ways and perhaps with a more singular message and call to action. We have been flooding inboxes to raise awareness – engaging some amazing young leaders and reaching out to those who can create change. The response has been really powerful. 

We have had interactions with the Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, the UK’s President for COP26, and met with the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). We have guested on podcasts like Titans of Nuclear and have co-hosted our own webinar series for COP. And we have been in touch with groups like ours worldwide, such as Nigeria’s YGN equivalent, sharing lessons and experiences on a global scale. This reflects how nuclear energy supports inclusive and sustainable global development, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, something we have been keen to emphasise throughout the campaign. 

As nuclear professionals, it has been fantastic that we have been enabled to do this. The experience and expertise of the sector is unparalleled – and incredibly inspiring – and Net Zero Needs Nuclear has been a way to funnel this message through a slightly different lens. As a younger group of volunteers collectively, that does set us apart and has opened doors or made people sit up and listen in a different way. But, for me, the biggest part of our campaign’s success to date has been the pride and enthusiasm with which we have been talking about the role of nuclear towards achieving a net zero world. That is something that the whole sector can get behind and channel.”