NUCLEAR ENERGYIs Nuclear Energy the Way to Achieve Climate Goals?

By Holly Young

Published 18 December 2023

After decades out of fashion, a declaration to triple nuclear capacity at UN climate talks suggests a revival. Some say it’s necessary to help curb emissions, others call it a needless distraction.

Nuclear energy is back,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron at the UN climate summit in Dubai last week, summoning its revival after decades of decline.

France, a leader in nuclear energy, is one of more than 20 nations — including the US, UK, United Arab Emirates and Japan — to have signed a pledge at COP28 to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

Although non-renewable, nuclear is considered a clean energy source because it produces relatively low greenhouse gas emissions responsible for planetary heating, compared to oil, coal and gas.

Yet, the difficulty of dealing with nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and the potential for a Chernobyl or Fukushima-style disaster, makes it a contentious source of energy.

There are more than 430 reactors around the world — which collectively produce around 10% of global electricity — and 57 more under construction. This new pledge seeks to up that percentage at a time when countries such as Germany have turned their back on nuclear altogether.

What Exactly Does the Declaration Involve?
The declaration states a nuclear revival is critical for reaching net-zero emissions, keeping to the Paris Accord goal of limiting planetary heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), and ensuring a stable, low-carbon energy supply as the world transitions to renewables.

Countries signed up to the pledge said they would work together to triple nuclear capacity on 2020 levels by extending the lifetimes of existing plants and building new reactors, including new small modular reactors (SMRS), which are potentially cheaper, quicker to build and safer than conventional ones.

That would mean a jump from 400 gigawatts (GW) annual nuclear capacity to almost 1200 GW and likely hundreds of new plants, said William D Magwood, director general of the Paris-based intergovernmental Nuclear Energy Agency, whose analysis of nuclear’s role in curbing emissions is cited in the declaration.

Can Nuclear Power Realistically be Tripled in 27 Years?
Criticisms of nuclear energy largely boil down it being too expensive and slow to contribute to rapid emissions cuts. High up-front costs, construction times of at least a decade, and a reputation for projects mired in delays make tripling capacity an unrealistic option for critics.

Mycle Schneider, an independent international energy analyst, who has long been critical of nuclear, believes the goal is “strictly impossible from an industrial point of view,” pointing to a decline in nuclear power generation of 4% globally.