COP28 backs global nuclear future

12 December 2023

Backing sustained growth in global nuclear capacity, COP28 reflects both changing sentiment and the crushing scale of the climate change challenge.

With COP28 in full flow as NEI goes to press, the positive sentiment that has been building for nuclear over the last few years has been resoundingly confirmed. In a landmark ministerial statement at the conference, more than 20 countries across four continents pledged to triple nuclear generating capacity by 2050.

The 28th Session of the Conference Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has once again emphasised the urgency of committed action to address carbon emissions. However, this is the first time that the nuclear contribution to that goal has been so explicitly recognised. While it’s possible this was in part a nod to the fact that this year the event was hosted by the United Arab Emirates – a nuclear newcomer in the midst of commissioning the last of the four 1400 MWe nuclear units at its Barakah power plant – in any event, the positive mood towards nuclear is striking. Alongside the new capacity pledge, dozens of nations led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) backed a second statement confirming that net zero carbon emissions can only be reached by 2050 with “swift, sustained and significant investment in nuclear energy”.

The statement notes that since the beginning of the 21st century, nuclear power has already avoided some 30 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and currently provides a quarter of global clean electricity. There’s also acknowledgement of emerging nuclear technologies like small modular reactors and the role they can play in making nuclear easier, cheaper and more flexible.

The statement notes this is of particular importance to developing countries, but it is clearly hugely significant to more developed nations too, where the newer technologies are seen as key enablers for increased renewables penetration and decarbonising previously hard to reach energy-intense sectors like transport, chemicals and steel.

Alongside new nuclear capacity, the statement also highlights the role of existing nuclear power plants in delivering low carbon energy, saying: “To build a low carbon bridge to the future will require that we keep the operating nuclear power plants serving us today."

All these avenues towards a bigger nuclear contribution are absolutely necessary and the recognition of nuclear in reaching net zero is, of course, a welcome dose of reality that for many has sadly been lacking so far. But the scale of the nuclear ambition also needs a reality check. Although not every nation has committed to the nuclear pledge its worth noting that tripling global capacity means adding well over 800 GW of new nuclear power over the next 25 years or so. Put another way, the current global reactor fleet is comprised of roughly 400 units. Adding another, say, 600 units by 2050 means building an average of one reactor a fortnight over several decades. This sort of scale puts ‘swift, sustained and significant investment in nuclear energy’ into breathtaking context. Certainly, nuclear will be essential if net zero and 1.5oC are to remain even a remote possibility. In the words of the IAEA, ‘net zero needs nuclear power’. To deliver on the scale imagined though means a fundamental rethink of our approach to nuclear energy development. Climate change is an existential threat for humanity and many would argue that for it to be addressed in a timely way requires an all out global commitment. Given the right incentives, humanity certainly can achieve remarkable feats. The Apollo Program of the 1960s is an example of just such
an achievement. It’s crystal clear then that a sustainably habitable planet requires a nuclear-enabled net zero world to become a reality. And that means nothing short of a global nuclear Apollo programme will do.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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