Contribution of Nuclear Power in Energy Transition

Contribution of Nuclear Power in Energy Transition


Ritika Mandhyan

The production and consumption of energy have inevitable links with emissions and climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), limiting global warming to 1.5 °C to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change would require sudden and far-reaching sustainable energy transition. Renewable energy is on top of the list to support sustainable transition and it has been at the heart of policies in several countries. However, despite being a fast and cheaper source of energy, renewables alone cannot fulfil the energy demand in the near future. Though in the long-term it seems to be the most appropriate measure, issues such as lesser stability in the energy production, need for larger lands, higher maintenance costs, and less explored technologies come in the way of leveraging renewables for a path towards net-zero emissions by 2050. With no easy and ultimate solutions available yet, governments have to now rely on a mix of energy sources. Nuclear energy among those, has a stronger potential to provide a stable, non-CO2 emitting, competitive, large scale, and a readily available alternative source to meet the fast-growing energy demand (Ricotti, 2013).

The Debate around Nuclear Energy

Despite the multifaceted benefits of nuclear energy, the recognition in contributing 19% of the electricity mix by 2040, and an increase of three times capacity compared to 2010, there remains a strong opposition in acknowledging its credentials in sustainable development due to various constrained societal preferences. The sentiments of people have drastically changed over the past few years with multiple accidents of nuclear energy plants instigating governments to restrict the production of nuclear energy. This can be observed from the trend in the nuclear energy share as a primary source, which rose from 0.5% in 1971 to 7% in the 1990s, and was then reduced to 5% in 2013. After the Fukushima accident, Japan has reduced its dependence on nuclear energy. Even Belgium, Korea, and Taiwan have opted for the closure of nuclear power plants by 2025. Germany is trying to phase out nuclear energy usage by 2022. However, many of the emerging economies have decided to increase the use of nuclear energy in the upcoming times owing to its potential of clean energy transition, contribution to energy security, stabilizing electricity prices, inducing cost competitiveness, and achieving superior energy density. The constraint of safety, high initial costs, risk of accidents and nuclear waste are some challenges that the nuclear industry has to address in these economies.

A Shift in the Path

Nuclear energy has seen a rapid growth up to the late 1980s, but it has been stagnant since then. Worldwide, about 17,000 nuclear reactors are operational in 31 countries. While North America, Europe and Japan are leading the way, China and other Asian countries are not far behind in producing nuclear energy. The increasing production of nuclear energy that was pushed back by the Fukushima incident is improving due to the restart of nuclear power plants in Japan. Advanced economies contribute to almost 74 percent of the existing gross capacity of nuclear energy production. While these economies are now trying to limit nuclear power generation, emerging economies are expanding their long-term nuclear energy goals. In developed economies, nuclear power is facing competition from low-cost natural gas and the declining cost of renewables. Furthermore, nuclear retirements are being projected due to higher renewable portfolio targets in most of the countries. In emerging economies, where the major share of population growth in the world is anticipated in the next 30 years, inflated energy demand would further increase. Realizing this situation, the governments of these countries are opting for energy transition by increasing nuclear power and other green sources of energy, to help reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

The Path Ahead for Nuclear Energy

In the last 50 years, the world CO2 emissions from electricity generation would have been 20% higher without nuclear power. IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario shows a 3% abatement of CO2 emissions till 2050 with an expected nuclear capacity of 601 GW. Nuclear energy also has the cost advantage in the overall system when compared to the intermittent renewables. Besides, an increasing renewable share will cause system cost to increase by 3 to 10 times over nuclear technology. Despite having lower lifetime costs, renewables may face challenges related to project delays, cost overruns and future electricity prices. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, has been responsible for the lowest number of human casualities when compared with per unit of other electricity sources. Due to the over-projection of vulnerabilities of nuclear facilities, it has been facing challenges due to the lack of public acceptance and political will. To avoid such barriers, a scientific approach for public outreach and awareness must be adopted. Technological collaboration, co-innovation and bilateral cooperation will play a significant role in strengthening the nuclear power industry. Furthermore, risk sharing and risk reduction-based financing mechanisms are needed for the increased involvement of private entities. Lastly, stringent security and safety measures are needed to ensure increased public acceptance and fewer casualties.

With the reduction of nuclear power in the past decade, there is growing cognizance among various international agencies that if there is no new investment in nuclear power and no life extension, the global nuclear capacity will decline, thereby causing multiple issues such as increased use of fossil fuel and associated CO2 emissions, higher cost of electricity produced by fossil fuels, the shortfall in low-carbon strategies of countries, increased costs of renewable energy and so on. Recognition of these concerns coupled with the ongoing debate on climate change and the need for cleaner energy would help in reviving the nuclear power industry.

Ritika Mandhyan is a doctoral scholar at the Department of Urban Engineering, University of Tokyo, Japan.