The future of nuclear energy looks brighter

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Between 2009 and 2019, global renewable energy consumption increased by an annual average of 13.4%. During this period, renewable energy consumption increased from 8.2 exajoules (EJ) globally to 28.8 EJ.

Yet global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by more than 4 billion metric tons per year during this period, reaching an all-time high in 2019.

The reason for this is that overall global energy consumption – while growing at an average annual rate of just 1.9% – grew by 92 EJ from 2009 to 2019. Renewables are growing at a much faster rate, but it will take decades at current growth rates before renewables can make a serious dent in global carbon dioxide emissions.

This is why nuclear power could play a vital supporting role in controlling global carbon dioxide emissions. Yet nuclear energy is concentrated in a handful of countries, and very few of them are increasing their nuclear energy production.

France recently announced that it would build up to 14 new nuclear reactors by 2050. This marked a reversal of policy, with President Emmanuel Macron promising four years ago to move away from nuclear power and to shut down 12 nuclear reactors. But the country was faced with reality this winter when some of its nuclear plants were taken out of service, and so it was forced to turn to coal.

France will build six new nuclear reactors and will study the possibility of building eight more. “Given the electricity needs, the need to also anticipate the transition and the end of the existing fleet, which cannot be extended indefinitely, today we are going to launch a program of new nuclear reactors,” Macron said.

But the vast majority of new nuclear power plant construction over the next five years will take place in the Asia-Pacific region. This is important, because this is the area where carbon dioxide emissions are increasing the fastest.

China, already a major nuclear power, has nearly 20 new nuclear reactors that will be under construction in the next five years. India, which is one of the largest and fastest growing energy consumers in the world, is not yet a major producer of nuclear energy. However, with eight new nuclear reactors to begin construction by 2027, it is firmly committed to becoming one.

Increased nuclear power in China and India could help meet growing energy demand without a continued explosion in the region’s carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, it may be the only solution that can reasonably achieve this goal.

In the United States, the world’s largest nuclear power producer, nuclear power generation has remained stable for the past two decades. But that should change this year with the commissioning of Southern’s Vogtle 3 and 4 units. These will be the first new nuclear units built in the United States in more than three decades.

Admittedly, there are still many headwinds for the industry following previous nuclear disasters like Chernobyl in 1986 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Another major disaster must be avoided, as it would be a huge setback for this essential tool for firm, scalable and low-carbon power generation.

But, with the current slate of nuclear power plants under construction, there is at least some hope that nuclear is regaining acceptance and could increasingly help halt the growth of global carbon emissions.


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