A New Era Has Dawned For Nuclear Power

The IAEA has already increased projections for nuclear growth this year, but will the need for greater energy diversity and security in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine push this figure even higher? Some countries are already opening up their existing nuclear power plans for discussion, with the potential for greater nuclear energy development over the next decade.

With the international push to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives coming out of the COP26 climate summit last November, many are reconsidering the development of their nuclear energy industries. The 2021 IAEA outlook for nuclear energy presents an increase in its high case scenario, with the potential for global nuclear generating capacity to double to 792 gigawatts (net electrical) by 2050 from 393 GW(e) last year. This is 10 percent higher than the previous year’s high case projection of 715 GW(e) by 2050. Although, the organization acknowledges that it would take significant action to achieve this scenario.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi stated that “The new IAEA projections show that nuclear power will continue to play an indispensable role in low carbon energy production”. And “The report’s findings represent an encouraging sign of increasing awareness that nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide during operation, is absolutely vital in our efforts to achieve net-zero emissions”, he went on to say.

The prediction of a rise in the nuclear power output comes are governments are increasingly concerned about switching to greener energy options, with many making ambitious net-zero carbon emissions targets for 2050. The high case scenario would see nuclear energy contributing 12% of global electricity by 2050.

Just recently, the European Commission released a European Green Deal that establishes “a classification system, establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities.” Under this system, the Commission includes both nuclear energy and natural gas, suggesting that both are vital to the transition away from the ‘dirtier’ fossil fuels. Nuclear energy production does not emit greenhouse gases, making it preferable to other options. This classification of nuclear power as ‘green’ could see governments increasingly turning to this energy source to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and fully renewable options, particularly as global electricity generation is expected to double over the next 30 years.

So, what effect is the conflict likely to have on this trend? Earlier this month, Russian forces attacked Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, sending shockwaves around the world as people feared another nuclear disaster. However, global powers are also acknowledging the importance of nuclear power as a potential future energy source.

Wind and solar power alone cannot supply the energy needed to meet the global demand in their current state, with governments looking for suitable alternatives to bridge the gap. And in the COP26 summit, several representatives showed interest in nuclear power for the first time in decades.

At present, there are around 440 nuclear power reactors across 30 countries, providing approximately 10 percent of the world’s electricity. In addition, 55 new reactors are currently under construction in 19 countries, with 19 of those in China. Russia also has a significant nuclear program. But now other countries are looking to further develop their nuclear power capacities, in response to climate change pledges and, more recently, to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In the UK, the government is now talking about boosting the country’s nuclear output, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a roundtable about the matter. This Monday, leaders from the nuclear industry met with the PM to discuss how to improve domestic energy security and rapidly accelerate nuclear projects in the UK. Johnson voiced his support for nuclear power as a major part of the UK’s future energy system as a clean, reliable, and safe energy source.

And in the US, President Biden demonstrated his interest in increasing America’s nuclear power even before the conflict. At the beginning of the year, the US government announced plans to invest in the upkeep of its nuclear power plants through the $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit Program. The Department of Energy expects this funding to help keep existing nuclear facilities running, with several losing money due to the competitive price of fossil fuel alternatives. The US sees nuclear power as vital to its climate change strategy and therefore sees the investment as a necessary means of achieving its longer-term green energy goals.

In addition, some countries are starting up their first nuclear power programs, demonstrating a growing interest in the energy source. In 2020, Belarus and the UAE began using nuclear power for the first time, under advice from the IAEA. There are around 30 ‘nuclear newcomers’ showing interest in developing nuclear programs with support from the IAEA, including Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Uganda.

With pressure mounting for countries to transition away from fossil fuels to greener alternatives, several governments have already demonstrated their interest in developing their nuclear energy capacities. And now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, state powers are trying even harder to establish their energy security by diversifying the energy mix and national production, with several turning to nuclear power.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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