climate change

Is nuclear energy a realistic option to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

Jorge Morales Pedraza*


Austria, November 28, 2014 (Alochonaa): The World Nuclear Association (WNA) “shares the concern” of the International Energy Agency (IEA) that urgent action will be needed to steer the world’s energy system onto a safer, low-carbon path.

In the 2014 edition of its World Energy Outlook (WEO), the IEA said that nuclear power is one of the few options available at scale to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while providing or displacing other forms of baseload generation. It has avoided the release of an estimated 56 gigatonnes of CO2 since 1971, or almost two years of total global emissions at current rates.

WNA Director General said: “The IEA’s central scenario would set us on a path of a dangerous increase in global temperatures. We must act to switch to cleaner and more affordable energy sources. Nuclear is a cost-effective way of producing reliable low-carbon electricity on a large scale and must form an increasing part of the world’s energy supply if we are to get serious about addressing climate change.” Policies concerning nuclear power will remain an “essential feature” of national energy strategies, even in countries which are committed to phasing out the technology and that must provide for alternatives, the WEO said.

Global nuclear power capacity increases by almost 60% in the IEA’s central scenario, from 392 GW in 2013 to over 620 GW in 2040. However, its share of global electricity generation that peaked almost two decades ago, rises by just one percentage point to 12%.”This pattern of growth reflects the challenges facing all types of new thermal generation capacity in competitive power markets and the specific suite of other economic, technical and political challenges that nuclear power has to overcome,” the WEO said. Growth is concentrated in markets where electricity is supplied at regulated prices, utilities have state backing or governments act to facilitate private investment. Of the growth in nuclear generation in 2040, China accounts for 45%, while India, Korea and Russia collectively make up a further 30%. Generation increases by 16% in the USA, rebounds in Japan (although not to the levels prior to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi) and falls by 10% in the EU.”Despite the challenges it currently faces, nuclear power has specific characteristics that underpin the commitment of some countries to maintain it as a future option,” it said.

In the IEA’s ‘low nuclear case’ – in which global capacity drops by 7% compared with today – indicators of energy security tend to deteriorate in countries that utilise nuclear power. For example, the share of energy demand met from domestic sources is reduced in Japan (by 13 percentage points), Korea (by six) and the European Union (by four) relative to the IEA’s central scenario.

Annual emissions avoided in 2040 due to nuclear power (as a share of projected emissions at that time) reach almost 50% in Korea, 12% in Japan, 10% in the USA, 9% in the European Union and 8% in China. The average cost of avoiding emissions through new nuclear capacity depends on the mix and the costs of the fuels it displaces, and therefore ranges from very low levels to more than $80/tonne.

Almost 200 reactors (of the 434 operational at the end of 2013) are expected to be retired in the period to 2040, with the vast majority in Europe, the USA, Russia and Japan; the challenge to replace the shortfall in generation is “especially acute” in Europe, the WEO said.

“Utilities need to start planning either to develop alternative capacity or to continue operating existing plants years in advance of nuclear plants reaching the end of their current licence periods. To facilitate this process, governments need to provide clarity on their approach to licence extensions and details of the regulatory steps involved well ahead of possible plant closures,” it said.

The IEA estimates the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants that are retired in the period to 2040 at more than $100 billion.


* The writer is a former Ambassador of Cuba to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a Former IAEA Senior Manager. He is the author of  Seven books, 10 chapters of books and more than 60 journal articles.

Categories: climate change, Energy

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