The true scale of nuclear ambition

18 October 2023

Extraordinarily ambitious plans to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050 are key to achieving our net zero goals. It’s certainly a big ask, but does that mean impossible?

A call to triple global nuclear capacity as part of a goal to reach a carbon neutral energy system by 2050 has been made during the recent launch of the ‘Net Zero Nuclear’ programme. This initiative has the goal of expanding nuclear energy’s role in the lead up to the COP28 climate conference. This is being held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The country is being held up as an example of rapid decarbonisation through the deployment of nuclear and its Barakah nuclear plant, claimed as one of the most cost and time-efficient nuclear new builds in recent history. Certainly, the UAE has an abundance of renewable resources and solar power will have a major role to play in the future energy mix. However, it is nuclear energy that has delivered the largest step towards full decarbonisation and is the largest single source of low-carbon electricity generation.

Reflecting this, the goal of the Net Zero Nuclear initiative is to bring together political leaders and industry with
the ultimate aim of enabling the rapid expansion of the global nuclear fleet and the acceleration of research and development into emerging nuclear technologies.

However, despite the recent success of projects like Barakah, the tripling of global nuclear capacity is extraordinarily ambitious. The figure is based on recent data modelling showing that the nuclear energy contribution needs to hit this target if climate goals are to be achieved while still ensuring security of energy supply.

Now 2050 still sounds like a long way off, but to triple nuclear capacity in this time frame would require nuclear deployment to average 40 GW a year over the next two and half decades. The cruel reality is that’s more than six times the rate that has been seen over the last decade.

Nonetheless, as daunting as that figure is, there are grounds for optimism. China, for example, reportedly expects to greenlight between six to eight new nuclear reactors a year within the next few years as it looks to generate around 10% of national power demand from nuclear by 2035. This will rise to 18% by 2060, with a total of some 400 GW of nuclear capacity. Putting that into perspective that’s just about the current global total nuclear capacity.

Beyond China, much will depend on both promoting the value of nuclear energy and removing barriers to its accelerated growth. Even here though, there are glimmers of hope that are steadily growing and providing much needed warmth to an industry long relegated to the backwaters of public and policy consciousness.

As the only source of reliable and dispatchable, low- carbon energy that can credibly be scaled to meet climate goals, nuclear is unassailable. The last few years have also seen nuclear become far more attractive in terms of its security of energy supply offering. And, when we consider the role of nuclear beyond the electricity grid, nuclear’s potential to support decarbonisation of heavy industry by supplying heat or steam for process industries and green molecules like hydrogen should provide even greater momentum to growth. It’s clear that in the run up to COP28 and beyond, nuclear energy will become still more prominent as an attractive source of low-carbon energy. As always though, the key to any energy sector is the underpinnings of policy and finance. For all its advantages, these factors are critical in ensuring future success for nuclear power. As Dr Sama Bilbao y Leo´n, Director General of World Nuclear Association, said at the Net Zero Nuclear launch: “We cannot afford to underestimate the role nuclear energy must play in achieving Net Zero...but scaling up nuclear energy capacity to at least three times its current size requires political will from energy leaders, along with mobilising quickly and efficiently the required financing.” There’s no doubt nuclear has a strong role to play in the future energy mix. Just how big a role will depend on the supporting frameworks that are put in place to facilitate its rapid expansion.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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