How nuclear power is helping to transition to clean energy

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Nuclear power, the second largest source of low emissions power after hydropower, with nuclear plants in 32 countries, has the potential to play a significant role in helping countries to transition to energy systems dominated by renewables, according to the IEA.

About 63 percent of nuclear generating capacity comes from plants that are more than 30 years old, since many were built in the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks. A range of both advanced and emerging economies have recently announced energy strategies that include substantial roles for nuclear power as well as considerable financial incentives to invest in it.

“In today’s context of the energy crisis, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, energy security challenges and ambitious climate commitments, nuclear power has a unique opportunity to stage a comeback,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol in the report.

nuclear plants and electricity generationAround 10 percent of the world’s electricity is generated by about 440 nuclear power reactors. About 55 more reactors are under construction, equivalent to approximately 15 percent of existing capacity, says a resesarch report from World Nuclear Association.

In 2020 nuclear plants supplied 2553 TWh of electricity, down from 2657 TWh in 2019. Prior to 2020, electricity generation from nuclear energy had increased for seven consecutive years.

IEA said nuclear industry must address the issues of cost overruns and project delays that have delayed 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.

Countries that choose to continue or increase their use of nuclear power, can cut reliance on imported fossil fuels, cut carbon dioxide emissions and enable electricity systems to integrate higher shares of solar and wind power.

In the IEA’s global pathway to reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050, nuclear power doubles between 2020 and 2050, with construction of new plants needed in all countries that are open to the technology. Even so, by mid-century, nuclear only accounts for 8 percent of the global power mix, which is dominated by renewables.

Despite moves to extend the lifetimes of some existing plants, the nuclear fleet operating in advanced economies could shrink by one-third by 2030 without further efforts. While plant lifetime extensions require substantial investment, they generally yield a cost of electricity that is competitive with wind and solar in most regions.

Robust policies are needed to support the use of nuclear power and enhance its safety, but the industry also must do a better job at delivering projects below cost and within budget to guarantee that nuclear-generated electricity is competitive, according to IEA report.

Government financing will remain necessary to mobilise new investment, not just for plants but also to develop the latest technologies. This is because there is rarely sufficient private sector finance for such capital-intensive and long-lived assets, particularly those exposed to significant policy risk.

A total of 19 countries currently have nuclear reactors under construction, demonstrating the recent momentum behind nuclear power that is likely to be further stimulated by recent spikes in oil, gas and electricity prices.