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Nuclear energy’s rebirth is not robust enough to limit climate change

The AP1000 Vogtle reactor in the United States is part of the country’s first new-build project in 30-plus years. © Georgia Power Company, all rights reserved

Nuclear power is developing, but slowly, with overall growth as much as 25% behind the rate the IEA sees as necessary to hold global temperature rise to 2°C.

2 May 2014

Reversing a steady expansion since the early 1970s, the accident in Fukushima resulted in a 10% decline in nuclear electricity production from 2010 to 2012 amid safety evaluations by all countries operating nuclear power plants.

But the sharp pullback is likely to prove short-lived, as ten new construction starts in 2013 added to the seven starts in 2012. This brings the number of nuclear reactors under construction at the end of last year to 72.

Fukushima’s impact on output was essentially the permanent shutdown of eight reactors in Germany as well as the eventual halt to all 50 of Japan’s operable reactors while awaiting permission to restart in a new reinforced regulatory framework.

So far, nearly all existing reactors worldwide have been cleared for continued operation, though some older models require upgrades to improve resistance to major earthquakes and flooding, such as additional emergency power supply systems and cooling capabilities.

While three countries – Germany, Belgium and Switzerland – decided to phase out nuclear power, countries such as China, India and Russia have maintained ambitious development programmes.

Several other countries, such as Belarus and the United Arab Emirates, are constructing their first units, and projects are advancing in Turkey and Viet Nam and are under development in Bangladesh, Jordan, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

The United Kingdom and Finland have confirmed plans for new reactors. The United States is seeing its first new-build projects in more than 30 years, though four reactors there were closed in 2013 for economic and regulatory reasons.

A critical element of a low-carbon system

The IEA flagship technology publication Energy Technology Perspectives 2014 features a scenario, the 2DS, that provides an 80% chance of attaining the 2°C target by more than halving energy- and process-related CO2 emissions from 2011 levels. No single technology can provide such reductions, but at 18% of the energy mix, nuclear power is a critical element of the proposed portfolio of technologies to achieve the 2DS by 2050.

Despite those 72 reactors under construction, Energy Technology Perspectives 2014 estimates that installed nuclear capacity in

2025 will be 7% to 25% below the 2DS target. With modern Generation III light-water reactors requiring close to 60 months just for construction, time is running short under the scenario.

Newer technologies coming to the fore

The shift of nuclear power to non-OECD countries is accelerating the transition to the more robust Generation III reactors, which are designed to reduce the likelihood and mitigate the consequences of severe accidents. Nearly half of the reactors under construction use the technology, and following the Fukushima accident, China announced that it would build only Generation III reactors.

Another promising technology is advancing, too: small modular reactors, which have generating capacities ranging from tens to a few hundred megawatts and which can be deployed as single or multiple units in areas with a small grid system. In addition to various levels of pre-licensing activity, especially in the United States, Russia is constructing the first plant that employs the technology.

Overcoming cost and public reluctance

Two critical challenges for the industry are public acceptance and financing.

Nuclear power has high capital costs and low running costs, a problem shared with other low-carbon technologies such as hydropower and offshore wind. The United Kingdom decided to promise a guaranteed rate for electricity that will be generated from its first new nuclear power reactors in 20 years.

Russia’s “build, own, operate” model is attracting interest from some countries. It allows them to offset the high capital costs of nuclear investments to long-term guaranteed electricity prices paid by the customers.

Other examples of financing include loans from export-import banks, the most recent example being China’s USD 6.5 billion loan to Pakistan for the construction of two reactors, as well as part-equity financing which some vendors are offering.

As far as public acceptance is concerned, levels of support differ greatly from nation to nation, with consistently high levels in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, but a continuation of the strong decline observed after the Fukushima accident in countries such as Japan or Korea.

This article by Henri Paillère, an analyst in the Nuclear Development Division of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, appears in the new issue of IEA Energy: The Journal of the International Energy Agency.  The IEA produces IEA Energy, but analysis and views contained in the journal are those of individual IEA analysts and not necessarily those of the IEA Secretariat or IEA member countries, and are not to be construed as advice on any specific issue or situation. Click here to read the new and earlier issues of IEA Energy, and click here to send a request a free subscription.

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