The United States and 21 other countries pledged Saturday at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050, saying reviving nuclear power was critical to reducing carbon emissions to near zero in the next decades.
Proponents of nuclear power, which supplies 18 percent of U.S. electricity, say it is a clean, safe and reliable complement to wind and solar power. But a major obstacle is financing.
Last month, a developer of small nuclear reactors in Idaho said it was canceling a project that was expected to be part of a new wave of power plants. The cost of building the reactors had risen from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion due to rising interest rates and inflation.
Britain, Canada, France, Ghana, South Korea, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates were among 22 countries that signed the declaration to triple capacity from 2020 levels.
Tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050, which would also help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, would require significant investment. In advanced economies, which have nearly 70 percent of the world’s nuclear capacity, investment has stalled as construction costs have soared, projects have gone over budget and faced delays. Besides cost, another obstacle to expanding nuclear capacity is that plants are slower to build than many other forms of energy.
Addressing the issue of funding, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said there were “trillions of dollars” available that could be used for investments in nuclear energy. “We are not arguing to anyone that this will absolutely be the radical alternative to any other energy source; no, that is not what brings us here,” he said. But, he added, science has shown that “you can’t get to zero net emissions in 2050 without some nuclear power.”
Nuclear power emits no carbon, and an International Energy Agency report last year said nuclear power was crucial to helping reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals outlined in 2015.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said nuclear energy, including small modular reactors, was an “indispensable solution” to efforts to curb climate change. France, Europe’s largest nuclear power producer, gets about 70 percent of its own electricity from nuclear power plants.
Macron and other leaders, including Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden, called on the World Bank and international financial institutions to help finance nuclear projects. Kristersson said governments must “take a role in allocating financial risks to strengthen conditions and provide additional incentives for investments in nuclear energy.”
While world leaders on Saturday called nuclear power the most effective alternative to fossil fuels, some climate activists said nuclear power was not a panacea.
David Tong, a researcher at Oil Change International, said the promise was divorced from the reality of nuclear power: that it was too expensive and too slow. “It is a self-serving political promise that does not reflect the role that nuclear energy is likely to play in the energy transition, which is small,” he said. “There is very little growth in the nuclear sector; certainly nothing like tripling.”
He said he rejected the position that there was no path to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a goal set in the Paris Agreement to avoid the worst effects of global warming, without nuclear power. Masayoshi Iyoda, a Japanese activist with 350.org, an international climate action campaign, cited the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and said nuclear power was a dangerous distraction from decarbonization goals. “It is simply too expensive, too risky, too undemocratic and too time-consuming,” he said in a statement.
“We already have cheaper, safer, democratic and faster solutions to the climate crisis, and they are renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Iyoda said.
All but four of the 31 reactors that began construction since 2017 were designed by Russia or China, and China is set to become the top nuclear power producer by 2030, the International Energy Agency said. This year, Germany closed its last three nuclear plants.
Nuclear capacity increased in the 1980s, particularly in Europe and North America, but fell sharply in the following years after the accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. New technologies and stricter regulations.
Americans are conflicted about nuclear power, but a growing number favor expansion compared to a few years ago, according to a Pew Research Center study released in August.