Decline in Nuclear Power Plants will Result in 4-Billion tonnes of extra CO2: IEA

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is warning that an observed decline in the number of nuclear power plants will result in 4-billion metric tonnes of extra CO2 in the atmosphere.

The IEA has issued a press release based on a newly published report warning of the dangers of abandoning nuclear as vital part of the electricity supply chain. “With nuclear power facing an uncertain future in many countries,” the IEA writes, “the world risks a steep decline in its use… that could result in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions.”

Currently, nuclear power is the second-largest ‘low-carbon’ power source, second only to hydroelectric power, accounting for 10 and 16 per cent of global electricity generation worldwide. There are, according to IEA figures 452 operating reactors, which provided 2700TWh of electricity to the grid in 2018.

“The lack of further lifetime extensions of existing nuclear plants and new projects could result in an additional 4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions,” the IEA wrote.

In countries like the United States, Canada, Japan and the European Union, nuclear energy has been the biggest low-carbon source of electricity for more than three-decades, however, the IEA is forecasting an uncertain future for nuclear power. This is largely due to ageing plants beginning to close as a result of policy changes, economic and regulatory factors, the IEA says.

“In advanced economies, nuclear has long been the largest source of low-carbon electricity, providing 18% of supply in 2018. Yet nuclear is quickly losing ground,” they say. “While 11.2GW of new nuclear capacity was connected to power grids globally in 2018 - the highest total since 1990 - these additions were concentrated in China and Russia.”

“Nuclear power has avoided about 55Gt 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.”

Dr Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director said that “without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder.”

“Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security.”

However, Dr Birol warned that “unless the barriers it faces are overcome, its role will soon be on a steep decline worldwide, particularly in the United States, Europe and Japan.”

“Policy makers hold the key to nuclear power’s future,” Dr Birol continued. “Electricity market design must value the environmental and energy security attributes of nuclear power and other clean energy sources. Governments should recognise the cost-competitiveness of safely extending the lifetimes of existing nuclear plants.”

This is becoming a particularly pressing issue in the United States, where 90 of its reactors have 60-year operating licenses, yet many of already been retired early, and more are at risk, according to the IEA.

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