Alternative to Climate Targets: Tripling Global Nuclear Power Capacity

Energy - January 27, 2024

More than twenty countries from around the world, including EU Member States, have signed a declaration in Dubai – the host of the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) – calling for a tripling of global nuclear power capacity by 2050. The aim is to reduce reliance on coal and gas, with nuclear power seen as a viable alternative to meet climate targets. Or rather the only one – according to John Kerry, the White House climate envoy:

 “We know from the science, the facts and the evidence that carbon neutrality cannot be achieved by 2050 without nuclear power.”

Incidentally, the Dubai Declaration was presented by Biden’s emissary, who was seconded by French President Emmanuel Macron.

“The Declaration recognises the key role of nuclear power in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and in maintaining the 1.5°C (global warming limitation) target,” reads the text of the Declaration signed in Dubai.

Germany says ‘no’ to nuclear power

In addition to the US and France, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan and South Korea – countries that are also among the world’s top nuclear power producers – as well as the United Arab Emirates, Finland, France, Ghana, the Republic of Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, the United Kingdom, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Hungary and Romania signed the declaration. As expected, the list of signatories lacks the Russian Federation and China – major builders of nuclear power plants, as well as several EU countries that, led by Germany, say “no” to nuclear energy. 

France and Germany are currently locked in a duel in Brussels, with the latter calling for nuclear power to be excluded from green policy on the grounds that, while “clean”, it is not considered renewable. In addition, Germany – like other European countries such as Spain and Italy – believes that the use of nuclear power is too risky, as demonstrated by the Chernobyl (April 26, 1986) and Fukushima (March 11, 2011) disasters. 

Beyond that, the number of countries around the world that can afford to build nuclear power plants is still small, as such large-scale projects are extremely expensive. In this context, the Dubai Declaration calls on international financial institutions – such as the World Bank – to include such projects on their list of future investments. This is because some of these lending institutions exclude, by their very state, the financing of such projects involving nuclear energy.

Romania is betting on an energy mix based on renewable sources and nuclear energy

For some actors present in Dubai, this new guideline in the energy policy of many countries appeared as an opportunity to declare their ambitions as regional leaders. An example is the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, who conveyed that Romania aims to become a regional leader in its operations and implementation, a centre for workforce training and a hub for nuclear energy supply chains. 

“We need to accelerate our actions to mitigate climate change and in particular to rapidly decarbonise our energy systems. That is why I am delighted to be here at this event alongside government and industry leaders who aim to deliver against the goal of zero net global emissions by 2050, including through the use of nuclear power. As far as Romania is concerned, our climate change and energy strategies foresee an energy mix based on renewables and nuclear energy for a zero net emissions Romania,” said Klaus Iohannis.

He pointed out that nuclear energy facilities have been operating in Romania for almost three decades “at high productivity and safety standards”. Currently, Romania has two operable nuclear reactors with a combined net capacity of 1.3 GW. In 2021, 18.5% of the country’s electricity was nuclear generated . 

Units 3 and 4, which are expected to produce nuclear power from 2030 and 2031 respectively, are also due to be completed in the next decade and will double the contribution of nuclear power to the Romanian energy system. The costs would amount to no less than €7 billion, according to the Romanian government. The amount is an estimate, but the figure will certainly be much higher. The state-owned company Nuclearelectrica (SNN), the operator of the Cernavodă nuclear power plant, wants the engineering, procurement and construction contract under which the plant’s new reactors will be built to provide, as far as possible, for a firm fixed total price, because such projects have often suffered delays and have come with massive cost overruns, which were ultimately borne by the beneficiary countries.

At the same time, Romania plans to implement small modular reactor technology. The project was developed by NuScale, an American company based in Oregon, which received certification from the authorities last year. So far, no such commercial reactor has been built anywhere in the world. In the US, the NuScale mini-reactor project was cancelled after the company that was supposed to build it pulled out. The main reason: a 53% increase in costs. Smaller reactors than the classic civilian ones are the military ones and have the advantage that they don’t have to operate at rated power, i.e. they can be shut down or have their power reduced. 

An analysis by a group of MIT researchers of nuclear power plant construction in the US confirms that the costs of these projects often far exceed estimates, but shows that safety measures for these plants account for only a third of the cost. For example, a typical plant built after 1970 exceeded the construction budget by 241%.

Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, built on the Mediterranean coast by the Russian company Rosatom, cost more than $20 billion and required more than a decade of finishing touches and work. Iran has been planning to build such a plant since the late 1970s and only announced in 2023 that it would start construction. Estimated price: around $2 billion. Although it has given assurances that it will use the plant for civilian purposes, there are nevertheless concerns, particularly from the US and Israel, that the regime in Islamabad might want a nuclear weapon.

10% of the world’s electricity supplied by nuclear power plants

There are currently 440 reactors worldwide, supplying about 10% of the world’s electricity. This percentage may seem insignificant compared to the percentage that fossil fuels still contribute to energy production, which stands at over 60%.

The US has nearly 100 reactors, which produce more than 50% of the country’s electricity. Although, according to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, by 2020 the US will have produced almost a third of the world’s nuclear power, it ranks only 17th in terms of the share of nuclear power in its mix. The discrepancy is largely due to the size of the territory and population.

China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is continuing to invest in nuclear power, planning to build 150 new reactors by 2035, which could cost up to $440bn. Along with Japan, Canada, South Korea and Ukraine are the only countries in the world with plants with an installed capacity of more than 6 000 megawatts.

Russia has 37 operable nuclear reactors with a combined net capacity of 27.7 GW and plans to build another 11 reactors by 2030, in addition to the three already under construction. But Russia’s nuclear industry strength is reflected in its dominance of export markets for new reactors such as Belarus, China, Hungary, India, Iran and Turkey, and, to varying degrees, as an investor in, for example, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, South Africa, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

A total of 13 Member States with nuclear electricity generation generated more than a quarter of the EU’s total electricity production, according to official data from 2021.

More than half of this amount (52%) was produced by France. Together with Germany, Spain, Sweden and Belgium, they produced more than 80% of the EU’s nuclear electricity. Two of these countries, meanwhile, have implemented government policies to close nuclear power plants. But one candidate to take their place is Ukraine. It has Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the 6000 MW Zaporodie plant. In total, the Ukrainian state has 15 operational nuclear reactors with a total installed capacity of over 13 000 MW. In 2021, nuclear reactors produced more than 86,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh), which accounted for 55% of the energy produced in the country, comparable to the percentage produced from this source in France.

Incidentally, the EU country that relies most on nuclear power is France. The Gravelines nuclear power plant is the second largest in Europe, with an installed capacity of 5,706 MW. In addition, there are 56 operational nuclear reactors in France, which produce the bulk – about 70% – of the country’s electricity. And France plans to increase this nuclear capacity. Equally dependent on nuclear seems to be Slovakia, where it accounts for 53.6% of the electricity mix. However, the country’s four reactors account for less than 1% of total global operating capacity. Or Belgium – which has seven operable nuclear reactors with a combined net capacity of 5.9 GW, generating half of the country’s electricity – and Hungary – with four operable nuclear reactors generating more than 40% of the country’s electricity.

But while some EU countries are moving towards nuclear power as a clean energy source, as confirmed by the Dubai Declaration, others are ending the nuclear age. After an extension of several months, in the context of the gas crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, Germany shut down its last nuclear reactors in mid-2022. Germany phased out nuclear generation as part of its Energiewende policy, launched in 2002 and accelerated under former chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster. 

“Even in a high-tech country like Japan, the risks of nuclear power cannot be 100% controlled,” the former German chancellor justified at the time.

On the 11th of March 2011, Japan was hit by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the fourth strongest ever measured. Beyond tens of thousands of deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damage, the earthquake had another effect: a nuclear accident. The Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered damage that resulted in the partial meltdown of three of its six reactor cores and the spread of radioactive material over a 30km radius. Like the Chernobyl accident, this nuclear disaster has been classified as a major accident at level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified severity scale.

Spain has a similar policy. But here, the fate of nuclear power plants has become a hotly debated issue in the recent election campaign, with the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) pledging to reverse the planned phase-out of nuclear plants, which generate about a fifth of the country’s electricity. Unlike the Spanish, the Italians settled the nuclear power plant issue long ago. In 2011, a majority of Italians voted in a referendum against the use of nuclear power after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wanted to restart reactors that were shut down in the 1980s. Like Italy, Denmark has no nuclear power plants but imports nuclear power.

In fact, Germany, Spain and Denmark, along with four other EU countries – Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal – have recently stepped up their opposition to France’s efforts to include nuclear power in the EU’s renewable energy targets. They have sent a letter to the Swedish EU Presidency calling for non-renewable sources – such as nuclear power – not to be counted towards the renewable energy targets.

“Including low-carbon hydrogen and low-carbon fuels in the 2030 renewables targets would dilute ambitions and slow down the development of renewables, which would consequently put the achievement of climate targets at risk.” 

“New renewable energy capacity can be installed in a short timeframe and at competitive costs,” the seven countries’ officials stressed in the letter.