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5 reasons we must embrace nuclear energy in the fight against climate change

Nuclear energy has its potential pitfalls — but it's also one of the cleanest and cheapest sources of energy available to us.

Nuclear energy has its potential pitfalls — but it's also one of the cleanest and cheapest sources of energy available to us. Image: Lukáš Lehotský/Unsplash

Rafael Mariano Grossi
Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
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Energy Transition

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • At COP28, the world recognized the need to transition away from fossil fuels and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
  • To do that, nuclear energy is essential — nuclear power plants produce no carbon emissions, are safer than almost every other option and produce affordable energy over the best part of a century.
  • Here's why nuclear energy is so important to the world — and how we can overcome investment barriers to make the most of it.

A little more than a month ago, the president of COP28 brought down the gavel on a global agreement to transition away from fossil fuels in an attempt to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The meeting’s host was the United Arab Emirates. In the past five years, through its investment in renewables and nuclear energy, the UAE has added more clean energy per capita to its energy mix than any other country.

Its Barakah Nuclear Power Plant started commercial operations in 2021. It will decarbonize a quarter of the Emirate’s electricity grid.

Globally, nuclear energy is also playing a key role in the transition to net zero. Fears about nuclear are slowly giving way to fact-based understanding. This year, for the first time, the document agreed at COP backed nuclear energy investment among low-emissions technologies.

One of nuclear’s key attributes is its energy intensity. A thimble-sized pellet of uranium produces as much energy as almost 3 barrels of oil, more than 350 cubic metres of natural gas and about half a tonne of coal.

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5 reasons we cannot ignore nuclear energy

Nuclear power, which has 20,000 reactor years of experience across the world, has five distinct advantages.

1. From cradle to grave, nuclear energy has the lowest carbon footprint and needs fewer materials and less land than other electricity source. For example, to produce one unit of energy, solar needs more than 17 times as much material and 46 times as much land.

2. Uranium in the earth's crust and oceans is more abundant than gold, platinum and other rare metals. It is going to take us about 100 to 150 years to get through the uranium resources we deem economically recoverable today.

3. Nuclear power doesn’t rely on the weather. Well-run nuclear power plants, including for example those in the US, operate at least two to three times as reliably for two to three times as many years as intermittent low-carbon sources. As a flexible baseload for wind and solar that provides more energy when it is needed and less when it is not, nuclear power plants displace coal and enable renewables.

4. Each year, nuclear power plants produce a quarter of the world’s low-carbon electricity, saving many lives that would otherwise be cut short by the lethal pollution fossil fuels pump into the air. Nuclear energy is about as safe as solar. It is far safer than coal, gas and oil, and safer than almost every other alternative energy source.

5. It is true that spent fuel is highly radioactive and emits heat. But it is also relatively compact, and extremely carefully managed and regulated. Nuclear energy generation is so efficient that the amount of all spent fuel ever produced would — in theory — fit into 42 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Today, it is carefully stored in pools and dry storage systems or recycled. Countries like Finland and Sweden are close to putting into place deep geological repositories to dispose of spent fuel. France is also progressing in the implementation of a deep geological repository for high-level waste from spent fuel recycling.

Nuclear is one of the safest, cleanest, least environmentally burdensome and — ultimately, over the lifetime of a nuclear power plant — one of the cheapest sources of energy available.

But for all of nuclear energy’s positive attributes, there are hurdles to overcome. The accidents at Chernobyl and at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station left long shadows of mistrust and underinvestment. The upfront cost of building a nuclear power plant is considerable and budget overruns and long delays have made it more difficult to gain support for new construction.

Three levers to catalyze investment in nuclear energy

Three main levers will need to be pulled if we are to triple today’s investment levels and build the nuclear capacity that will help get us to net zero.

Lever 1: Nuclear must be acknowledged for what it is: a reliable, scalable, safe and highly affordable low-carbon source of energy. It must be treated that way when it comes to investment incentives. Today’s energy markets are not the same as those of the 1970s and 1980s. Nuclear needs private investment, even in markets where governments still take on much of the financing. Governments need to shoulder the risk of the high capital costs at the start. But that alone is not enough. They need to attract private financing through assured revenues and an enabling investment environment over the longer term. That means levelling the playing field nationally and internationally, including by changing the policies preventing investment in nuclear energy by many keyinternational financial institutions and development banks.

Lever 2: Governments and the public are again turning towards nuclear. The nuclear industry needs to respond to the challenge and opportunity of this unique moment by delivering on time and on budget, while achieving a greater level of industrial standardization and better incorporating safety, security and safeguards at the design stage.

Lever 3: Regulators need to meet the moment by enabling the necessary tripling of capacity while maintaining high levels of safety. This includes building their own internal capacity, including to license the next generation of innovative reactors for which regulators do not yet have experience.

Nuclear energy is a cross-border endeavour. That means all these efforts require international cooperation and collaboration. As the centre of the global nuclear field, the IAEA will continue to facilitate progress in safety and security and enable the timely deployment of small modular reactors by bringing together regulators and industry through its Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative.

Nuclear energy is an extraordinary asset whose full potential we need to untap if we are to keep climate change in check. The narrative that pits nuclear against wind and solar is wrong. It is time for the truth to get through, for leaders to pull the necessary levers and help make the global climate goals achievable.

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