IEA report finds the world is at risk of a steep decline in nuclear power

Article by Amanda Jasi

THE International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the world is at risk of a steep decline in nuclear power, and that a fall in advanced economies threatens climate goals and energy security.

According to the new IEA report, Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, nuclear is currently the second largest low-carbon power source in the world, generating 10% of global energy. Across advanced economies, such as the UK, France and the US, nuclear power is responsible for 18% of energy generation and is the top low-carbon source of electricity.

In recent years the global electricity supply from nuclear has been decreasing in advanced economies where nuclear fleets are ageing and being retired, and plans for new capacity do not meet the shortfall. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster some countries including Germany initiated early decommissioning and phase-out policies; while Japan itself is still working to  restart the unaffected reactors around the country that were closed in the wake of the meltdown.

In the UK, nuclear projects have faced economic issues. In 2017, it was forecast that a UK nuclear power station at Hinkley Point would cost US$2.5bn more than expected. Another UK nuclear project in Wylfa Newydd was suspended due to disagreements about project financing and related commercial arrangements

Without life extension of existing plants or new projects, nuclear power capacity in advanced economies will decrease by about two-thirds by 2040, the report says.

Under current governmental policy ambitions power generation from gas, and to a lesser extent coal, would play an important role in replacing nuclear. Gas would become more important for countries’ electricity security. Additionally, cumulative CO2 emissions would increase by 4bn t by 2040, making it more difficult to achieve emissions targets.

Whilst low-carbon electricity alternatives are available – mainly wind and solar – the rate of growth of these technologies would need to occur at an unprecedented rate to address the nuclear shortfall. According to the report wind and solar capacity has increased by 580 GW in the past 20 years. Over the next 20 years growth would have to be five times that amount in order to offset the decline of nuclear energy.

In order to allow sustainability to be achieved with less nuclear power, the investment in power would overall increase. Clean energy transitions in advanced economies would require an additional net investment of around US$1.6trn, from 2018 to 2040. However, required nuclear investments would only decrease by US$400bn.

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, said “policy makers hold the key to nuclear power’s future”.

To address the concerns about the loss of nuclear, the IEA’s recommendations to countries that intend to retain nuclear power include: authorising nuclear plant lifetime extensions, as well as new projects; updating safety regulations to ensure the continued safe operation of nuclear plants; supporting new constructions by ensuring licensing processes do not lead to unjustified project delays and cost increases, supporting standardisation, and enabling learning-by-doing across the industry; and, supporting innovative new reactor designs such as small modular reactors (SMRs).

Birol said: “Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder.”

“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.”

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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