Nuclear Pollution

Nuclear energy can be the turning point in the race to decarbonize

  • Nuclear is gaining increasing support in battle against climate change.
  • Reaching net-zero carbon emissions will require a doubling of nuclear capacity.
  • Technology such as small modular reactors and spent fuel repositories are increasing nuclear accessibility and safety.

As a team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts and I made our way to the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last November, the growing energy crisis was already apparent in queues at petrol stations and among conversations about the 400% rise in natural gas prices.

For the first time, nuclear energy was represented at the COP table and its increasing acceptance, especially among young people, was palpable. It had been a long time coming for nuclear, which produces more low-carbon energy than any other source except hydropower.

Today, just a few months after COP, we are seeing the consequences of military conflict in Ukraine begin to turn that interest into action. Governments from Belgium to Japan have announced their intention to extend the lives of nuclear power plants, citing concerns about geopolitical instability. Across the world, leaders are worried about shortages in the supply of oil and natural gas, and price spikes in electricity and petrol, undermining their nations’ and political stability.

The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) calls this our first global energy crisis. There’s little doubt this crisis will accelerate a shift in our energy infrastructure. Still to be decided is whether it will be coal and gas, or nuclear, that work together with hydro, wind, solar and other renewables to deliver uninterrupted electricity. If, despite the short-term pressures, governments prioritize moving to more predictable long-term prices, meeting their climate targets, and reducing the 8 million annual deaths caused by air pollution, nuclear capacity will grow.

Forecasters including those at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IEA, and the IAEA have looked at data that underpin where we are today and where nations say they want to be in the coming decades, and have concluded the journey will require a doubling of nuclear capacity.

I am confident it can be done. It has been done before. Forty per cent of today’s operating nuclear power plants were built as a result of the last major energy crisis and now – after considerable upfront costs – supplying some of the cheapest electricity in the world. Technically, nuclear has the advantage of the atom’s high energy density, meaning it can supply uninterruptible energy at scale with a comparably minimal physical, as well as carbon, footprint; its fuel can be stored to avoid big price fluctuations or supply interruptions; and the physical size of its waste is small.

Nuclear has the advantage of the atom's high energy density

Nuclear has the advantage of the atom’s high energy density

Image: IAEA

More than 440 nuclear reactors operating across the world produce one-quarter of its low-carbon electricity, and more than 50 reactors are currently under construction. About 30 countries are actively considering, planning, or preparing to build nuclear power plants, seeing their benefits as long-term reliable low-carbon energy sources and stimulators of economic activity and employment.

As a significant share of the current nuclear fleet of reactors comes to the end of their intended lifetimes, several countries are successfully extending their use, buying more time to bring new low-carbon sources online. We have come a long way since those reactors were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Importantly, a technical solution now exists to the central question of what to do with nuclear waste. Finland’s Onkalo spent fuel repository shows us a way forward, and several other countries are also working on such projects.

Meanwhile, innovations such as small modular reactors (SMRs) are being developed. As they come to market, they will offer options to countries and industries for which larger reactors may not be the right choice. SMRs will be quicker and more affordable to build, have a greater level of inherent safety due to their design, offer more flexibility for pairing with variable renewables such as solar and wind, and are being developed by many countries around the world.

However, there are important requirements to consider. For SMRs and any nuclear power plant to be built, regulatory and financing conditions need to be right. Here there is more work to do. Industry has much experience to build on and some countries, including for example the UK, are coming up with innovative answers in regulation and financing.

Finland’s Onkalo may be a beacon, but more countries will have to continue to work on solutions to existing and future nuclear waste, both by recycling and reusing it and in building repositories. Across the fuel cycle, nuclear safety, security and safeguarding – areas integral to the IAEA’s mandate – are key to nuclear’s future. They lay its critical foundation of public confidence, which is built through honest and consistent public outreach and stakeholder engagement.

In these crucially important areas, I am confident that the international community will continue to work together, despite any wider geopolitical disagreements. My confidence rests not only on the fact that the IAEA will help make it happen but also because, even in the past few months, I have seen it occur.

In March, as the conflict in Ukraine dominated minds and hearts, state parties gathered in Vienna and successfully reviewed the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, confirming the global commitment to nuclear security. And every day I see countries continue to work on implementation, sharing expertise and offering support in many areas of nuclear energy and science.

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China , India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest annual in terms of reading account for only 2.6% of global emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Today’s decisions by scientists, leaders and the public make me hopeful that the energy crisis we are experiencing will be a catalyst for a faster shift to a low-carbon energy future, where nuclear provides electricity and supports the shift to a hydrogen economy, while helping to decarbonize hard-to-reach industrial sectors and transport. It is up to all of us to ensure we don’t let the opportunity go to waste.

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