A global decline in the use of nuclear power could lead to billions of additional tonnes of carbon emissions being released, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has claimed.
In a new report, the IEA says that nuclear power – one of the world’s biggest low-carbon power sources – is facing an uncertain future as countries look to phase it out for safety concerns or face economic or regulatory issues.
The agency has warned that countries’ failure to renew existing nuclear power plants or to invest in new nuclear power projects could hamper energy security and lead to 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.’
Nuclear power currently accounts for 10% of global electricity generation, and is the world’s second-biggest low-carbon energy resources to hydropower on 16%.
It has also been the largest source of low-carbon electricity in advanced economies such as the US, Canada, the EU and Japan for over three decades.
Without urgent changes in policy, these economies risk losing up to 25% of their nuclear capacity by 2025 and up to 66% by 2040, the IEA says.
While the report found that extending existing nuclear power is expensive, it found that its cost is actually competitive compared to other new electricity technologies such as new solar and wind projects, and can make countries’ energy transitions less disruptive.
However, market conditions are still unfavourable for nuclear projects as countries have endured low wholesale electricity prices for an extended period, reducing profit margins and leaving plants at risk of closing early, it said.
The IEA says that without extensions to existing plants and new builds, countries will find it harder and even more expensive to meet sustainable energy goals and international climate targets.
The agency warned that filling the shortfall would require huge, rapid investment in other low-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar PV, creating challenges for their integration and potentially leading to higher electricity bills.
‘Policymakers hold the key to nuclear power’s future,’ Dr Birol said. ‘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.’
The IEA’s latest report follows its analysis earlier this week that most global sectors are failing to keep up with their clean energy goals.
On Monday, the IEA said that only 7 of 45 critical energy technologies are currently ‘on track’ with its Sustainable Development Scenario, which measures progress towards the Paris Agreement, the delivery of universal energy access and the reduction of air pollution.