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2050 carbon emission goals need nuclear to succeed, says International Energy Agency

Without it, $500b more in investments is needed to reach C-neutrality

There's more than one path to net zero emissions by 2050, but the only practical one runs straight through nuclear power, according to the International Energy Agency.

In a report [PDF] released yesterday, the IEA said worldwide nuclear power output, currently at 413GW, would need to double to 812GW by 2050 to meet carbon neutrality goals and limit global warming to 1.5°C, per its own framework

The IEA doesn't see nuclear power as the solution to net zero emissions, though, rather a part of the transition process to preferred forms of renewable energy like wind, solar, and hydroelectric. "Building sustainable and clean energy systems will be harder, riskier, and more expensive without nuclear," the IEA said. "Nuclear power has the potential to play a significant role in helping countries to securely transition to energy systems dominated by renewables."

IEA director Fatih Birol said the current energy crisis, rising fossil fuel prices, problems with energy security, and ambitious climate goals give nuclear energy a road to a comeback, but not a smooth one. 

"A new era for nuclear power is by no means guaranteed," Birol said. 

Among the obstacles the report lists, some are obvious, such as public opinion. Even in countries like the US, where nuclear is viewed more favorably and small modular reactor development has grown, still only a third favor government investment in nuclear power.

In addition to sentiment, the report found that advanced economies, which control 70 percent of the current nuclear capacity, are lagging. Since 2017, only four reactors that began construction weren't located in Russia or China.

Sixty-three percent of plants in advanced economies are over 30 years old, creating yet another problem. Several countries have taken steps to refurbish and extend the life of ageing reactors, but the IEA is still concerned those countries could lose a third of their nuclear production capabilities by 2030.

The IEA has a second scenario in which global nuclear energy production shrinks from 10 percent in 2020 to 3 percent in 2050. The body said an additional $500 billion in investment would be needed to meet 2050 carbon goals were that to happen. Consumer prices for energy would also rise, it said.

If the IEA is correct, modernizing nuclear power seems to be a necessary step in a green energy transition. The IEA has seven recommendations for countries considering nuclear power as part of their carbon neutrality plans:

  • Extend the lifetime of existing plants
  • Compensate nuclear power plants "in a competitive and non-discriminatory manner" for emissions reduction
  • Create financial frameworks favorable to new reactor construction
  • Develop efficient and effective safety regulations
  • Build proper waste disposal facilities
  • Speed up development of small modular reactors
  • Make long-term support of the nuclear industry contingent on projects staying on time and budget

It's worth noting that half of emissions reductions that IEA predicts come from technologies it describes as "not yet commercially viable," which includes SMRs. The report didn't mention what other technologies are holding carbon reduction back, and the IEA has yet to respond to requests for comment. ®

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