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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Is nuclear energy back?


4 min read

Head and shoulders photo of Dr Sama Bilbao y Leon, Director General of the World Nuclear Association Photo: World Nuclear Association
Dr Sama Bilbao y Leon, Director General of the World Nuclear Association

Photo: World Nuclear Association

Global nuclear power generation has roughly flatlined for the last 20 years as many western countries have lost their appetite for this low carbon power generation option. Here, Dr Sama Bilbao y Leon, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, puts the case for governments joining the global nuclear industry to facilitate a tripling of its growth.

The latest edition of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook claims that: ‘A changing policy landscape is creating opportunities for a nuclear comeback.’ The reality is that nuclear energy has been here all along, quietly providing affordable, reliable 24/7 carbon-free electricity for five decades in more than 30 countries in all continents. But it is certainly reassuring to finally have the recognition of policymakers, energy experts, the finance community, think tanks and the public in general about the essential role of nuclear energy in meeting climate, energy security and sustainable development goals.


Nuclear reactors currently provide around 10% of the world’s electricity, positioning nuclear power as the second-largest source of clean, low-carbon electricity, trailing only behind hydropower. The remarkable performance of the existing global nuclear fleet, maintaining an average capacity factor exceeding 80%, underscores the reliability of this energy source. Even reactors reaching their sixth decade of operation continue to achieve these high-performance levels.


However, global nuclear generation over the past two decades has held steady, at approximately 2,500 TWh, as newbuild start-ups have been matched by closures of existing reactors, most often due to politically motivated phase-outs, or because of market distortions. At the same time, fossil fuels stubbornly maintain a grip on over 60% of the global electricity supply. Despite the perceived urgency needed to address the climate emergency, which has resulted in a significant growth in renewables such as wind and solar, their contributions continue to be offset by the surge in fossil fuel generation to meet rising global electricity demand.


The escalating need for electricity stems from multiple drivers, including population growth, increased electricity demand to foster economic and social development, and the electrification of sectors such as transportation, exemplified by the surge in electric vehicles. With electricity demand projected to more than double by 2050, to truly make a difference nuclear generation must significantly outpace overall global electricity supply growth.


In fact, it is becoming increasingly evident that at least tripling global nuclear capacity is not just an option; it’s a necessity if we are going to achieve global net zero greenhouse gas emissions and bolster energy security in a cost-effective and equitable manner.


Shift in attitudes
Encouragingly, recent years have witnessed a significant shift in government attitudes towards nuclear energy, recognising its crucial role not just in achieving climate goals but also enhancing energy security and system resilience.


In Europe, 16 European Union nations have united in the European Nuclear Alliance with the aim of reaching 150 GW of nuclear power capacity by 2050, a modest yet pivotal 50% increase from current continental European capacity. In the UK, the government has set ambitious targets for tripling nuclear capacity, with plans for large-scale projects like Sizewell C and small modular reactors (SMRs) on the horizon.


In Asia, nuclear generation has more than doubled in the past decade, led by China, which has added nearly 40 reactors during this period and has a goal of adding 150 more in the next 15 years. India has pledged to triple its nuclear capacity by 2032, and Bangladesh just became the newest member of the nuclear family with its first nuclear unit planned to start up in 2024. Both Japan and South Korea have reviewed national energy policies in support of existing and new nuclear generation.


Governments must actively facilitate the nuclear industry's growth at the required pace and scale, while industry players must demonstrate their commitment to working collaboratively to achieve this global imperative.


The United Arab Emirates is also making significant strides, soon commencing its fourth reactor at Barakah, increasing the share of nuclear in its electricity generation mix from zero to up to 25% in just four years. Turkey is moving forwards with a similarly ambitious four-unit plant at Akkuyu and Egypt is following suit with the construction of its first nuclear plant at El-Dabaa, becoming the second African country to embrace nuclear power after South Africa.


Canada and the US are collaborating to establish a regulatory environment that will help accelerate the development and deployment of SMRs and plans for the first demonstration plants are well-advanced in both countries. SMRs are gaining global attention due to their diverse designs and applications, ranging from scaled-down versions of existing technologies to innovative designs that can provide high-temperature process heat. Together with new large-scale reactors, SMRs hold the key to decarbonising hard-to abate industrial sectors.


Governments must facilitate nuclear growth
However, the realisation of these technologies hinges on the commitment of governments and the global nuclear industry to creating the necessary conditions for accelerated deployment. To galvanise this effort, we have launched the Net Zero Nuclear initiative, aimed at bringing together governments, the nuclear industry and civil society at COP28 to pledge their commitment to tripling global nuclear capacity by 2050, a critical step towards achieving a net zero global economy.


The call for action extends beyond policy setting; it demands practical programmes for constructing new facilities and extending the lifespan of existing nuclear plants. Governments must actively facilitate the nuclear industry’s growth at the required pace and scale, while industry players must demonstrate their commitment to working collaboratively to achieve this global imperative. The stakes are high, but the benefits for our planet and future generations are immeasurable.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.