Nuclear power has historically been one of the largest global contributors of carbon-free electricity and while it faces significant challenges in some countries, it has significant potential to contribute to power sector decarbonisation.
Nuclear power accounts for about 10% of electricity generation globally, rising to almost 20% in advanced economies. Yet it faces a contrasted future despite its ability to produce emissions-free power.
While some countries are phasing out nuclear plants due to public opposition and concerns over safety, another 19 countries were in process of building new nuclear facilities at the start of 2021, envisaging a future role for nuclear power.
With large up-front costs and long lead times for projects, nuclear power has trouble in some jurisdictions competing against more economic and faster-to-install alternatives, such as natural gas or modern renewables. The development of next generation installations, such as smaller modular plants, could shift the balance back in favour of nuclear power.
With nuclear power’s uncertain future in many countries could result in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions.
Nuclear power plants contribute to electricity security in multiple ways by keeping power grids stable and complementing decarbonisation strategies since, to a certain extent, they can adjust their output to accompany demand and supply shifts. As the share of variable renewables like wind and solar photovoltaics (PV) rises, the need for such services will increase.
Global nuclear power generation grew by 3.5% in 2021
Global nuclear power generation grew by 3.5% in 2021 compared with 2020, recovering from an almost 4% drop in 2020. In China, nuclear power grew by around 11% in 2021, following a 5% growth in 2020. In the European Union, nuclear was able to recover from its almost 11% drop in 2020, which was caused by lower electricity demand as a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis and reduced reactor availability. However, with an increase of 8% in 2021, nuclear generation remains below the level in 2019. Nuclear power generation in the United States decline for the second time in a row in 2021 (down by 1.5%), reaching the lowest level since 2012.
A doubling in annual capacity additions is needed to be on track with the IEA’s Net Zero Scenario
In 2020, 6 GW of additional nuclear capacity were connected to the grid and 5.4 GW were permanently shut down, bringing global capacity to 415 GW. New projects were launched (~4.8 GW), and refurbishments are under way in many countries to ensure the long-term operations of the existing fleet. Nevertheless, while nuclear energy remains the world’s second most important low-carbon source of electricity, new nuclear construction is not on track with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.
According to current trends and policy targets, nuclear capacity in 2040 will amount to 582 GW – well below the level of 730 GW required in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. This gap widens even further after 2040, so long-term operation of the existing nuclear fleet and a near-doubling of the annual rate of capacity additions are required. While some of this additional nuclear capacity will not come online until the late 2030s, policy decisions are required now to put nuclear back on track.
Nuclear power can play an important role in clean energy transitions
Nuclear power has avoided about 55 Gt of CO2 emissions over the past 50 years, nearly equal to 2 years of global energy-related CO2 emissions. However, despite the contribution from nuclear and the rapid growth in renewables, energy-related CO2 emissions hit a record high in 2018 as electricity demand growth outpaced increases in low-carbon power. In the absense of further lifetime extensions and new projects could result in an additional 4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, underlining the importance of the nuclear fleet to low-carbon energy transitions around the globe. Source: IEA