Nuclear power can play a significant role in helping countries solve the twin crises of energy and climate and securely transition to future energy systems dominated by renewables, according to a new report, Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transitions: From Today’s Challenges to Tomorrow’s Clean Energy Systems, released June 30 by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The message is clear: Nuclear power can reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, cut carbon dioxide emissions, and stabilize electricity systems; and building sustainable and clean energy systems will be harder, riskier, and more expensive without nuclear.
Opportunity and costs: The energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents an opportunity to leverage nuclear power to increase energy security, the IEA indicates. “The oil security crisis of the 1970s spurred the first wave of nuclear new-builds: in the decade that followed the first oil shock, construction started on almost 170 GW of nuclear power plants; these plants still represent 40% of the nuclear capacity that is operating today,” the report says. “If policy support is forthcoming and costs are kept under control, the renewed interest in nuclear today could point in a similar direction.”
In addition to national policies and financing assistance that support nuclear deployment, the nuclear industry “has to up its game in order to play its part” by completing nuclear projects in advanced economies at around $5,000/kW by 2030, compared with the reported capital costs of around $9,000/kW (excluding financing costs) for first-of-a-kind projects, while a larger role for nuclear power would be possible if there were greater declines in construction costs. “There are some proven methods to reduce costs including finalizing designs before starting construction, sticking with the same design for subsequent units, and building multiple units at the same site,” the report says. “Stable regulatory frameworks throughout construction would also help avoid delays.”
A nuclear comeback: “In today’s context of the global energy crisis, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, energy security challenges, and ambitious climate commitments, I believe nuclear power has a unique opportunity to stage a comeback,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol. “However, a new era for nuclear power is by no means guaranteed. It will depend on governments putting in place robust policies to ensure safe and sustainable operation of nuclear plants for years to come—and to mobilize the necessary investments including in new technologies. And the nuclear industry must quickly address the issues of cost overruns and project delays that have bedeviled the construction of new plants in advanced economies. As a result, advanced economies have lost market leadership, as 27 out of 31 reactors that started construction since 2017 are Russian or Chinese designs.”
A ”narrow but achievable” path: The report builds on the IEA’s flagship report released in May 2021, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. In the net-zero emissions scenario of that report, nuclear power doubles from 413 GW in early 2022 to 812 GW in 2050, with construction of new plants needed in all countries that are open to the technology. “This narrow but achievable pathway requires rigorous and immediate policy action by governments around the world to reshape energy systems on many fronts,” according to Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transitions.
“Annual nuclear capacity additions reach 27 GW per year in the 2030s, higher than any decade before. Even so, the global share of nuclear in total generation falls slightly to 8%. Emerging and developing economies account for more than 90% of global growth, with China set to become the leading nuclear power producer before 2030. Advanced economies collectively see a 10% increase in nuclear, as retirements are offset by new plants, mainly in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Annual global investment in nuclear power rises from USD 30 billion during the 2010s to over USD 100 billion by 2030 and remains above USD 80 billion to 2050.”
Preaching to the choir? The IEA notes that a total of 19 countries currently have nuclear reactors under construction, while public and political opposition to nuclear power in other countries makes its use untenable—at least for now. While the new report includes a list of several policy recommendations “directed at policy makers in countries that see a future for nuclear energy,” the IEA “makes no recommendations to countries that have chosen not to make use of nuclear power and fully respects their choice.”