The International Energy Agency has warned that a shortfall in nuclear-generating capacity in advanced economies could result in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions.
Nuclear energy is the world’s second-largest low carbon power source, second only to hydropower, and accounts for 10% of global electricity generation (where hydropower accounts for 16%). For advanced economies, the figure is even higher, accounting for 18% of generation and is the largest low-carbon sources of electricity.
However, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), nuclear’s share of the global electricity supply has been declining in recent years, with additions of new capacity not keeping up with the aging and retiring nuclear fleets which were built in the 1970s and 1980s.
The IEA believes that, without extending the lifespan of existing nuclear plants and building new projects, the global energy sector will create an additional 4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
“Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “Alongside renewables, energy efficiency, and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security. But unless the barriers it faces are overcome, its role will soon be on a steep decline worldwide, particularly in the United States, Europe, and Japan.”
The fate of nuclear power is currently in the hands of governments around the world, many of whom have chosen to phase them out — some for safety concerns, while others are looking to phase nuclear out in favor of renewable energy sources. The uncertainty is made worse by economic and regulatory factors, with market conditions and regulatory barriers simply making life harder for nuclear power plants to operate. Those countries who are still in favour of nuclear are not doing enough to meet their goals, explains the authors of a report published this week by the IEA entitled Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System.
The authors of the report find that extending the operational life of existing nuclear power plants will require “substantial capital investment” and will be “cost competitive with other electricity generation technologies” such as wind and solar, “and can lead to a more secure, less disruptive energy transition.” Against this, however, are the unfavorable market conditions for lengthening the lifespans of nuclear power plants. The IEA points to the lengthy period of low wholesale electricity prices in most advanced economies which have reduced or eliminated profit margins for many technologies, which has, in turn, put nuclear plants at risk of shutting down early.
For example, the United States has around 90 nuclear reactors with 60-year operating licenses, yet several have already retired and many more are facing a similar fate. Nuclear power plants in Europe, Japan, and other advanced economies are facing similar issues.
It’s important to note that the IEA acknowledges the role renewable energy sources are playing, but they also point out that if wind and solar are to fill the gap being left by a declining nuclear industry, “their deployment would have to accelerate to an unprecedented level.” Specifically, over the past 20 years, wind and solar PV capacity has increased by about 580 gigawatts (GW) across advanced economies. However, if nuclear is to fall by the wayside and fossil fuels are continued to be phased out, the next 20 years will need to see wind and solar capacity increase at nearly five times what has been seen in the previous 20 years. In turn, such a dramatic increase of wind and solar would create what the IEA believes are “serious challenges” in integrating these new variable sources into the larger energy mix. The IEA also believes that such a large-scale clean energy transition would require $1.6 trillion in additional investment over the next 20 years, which the authors of the report believe would end up hurting consumers through higher electricity bills.
“Policymakers hold the key to nuclear power’s future,” Dr Birol concluded. “Electricity market design must value the environmental and energy security attributes of nuclear power and other clean energy sources. Governments should recognise the cost-competitiveness of safely extending the lifetimes of existing nuclear plants. ”
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