IEA warns not to let nuclear power go into decline

A new report from the International Energy Agency says that nuclear power is facing an uncertain future in many countries, risking a steep decline that could result in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions.

The IEA released its first report addressing nuclear power in two decades this week during the Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver, B.C., hosted by the Government of Canada.

“Nuclear is the second-largest low-carbon power source in the world today, accounting for 10 percent of global electricity generation. It is second only to hydropower at 16 percent. For advanced economies – including the United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan – nuclear has been the biggest low-carbon source of electricity for more than 30 years and remains so today. It plays an important role in electricity security in several countries,” the IEA said on Tuesday.

“However, the future of nuclear power is uncertain as ageing plants are beginning to close in advanced economies, partly because of policies to phase them out but also as a result of economic and regulatory factors. Without policy changes, advanced economies could lose 25 percent of their nuclear capacity by 2025 and as much as two-thirds of it by 2040.”

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 estimates.

“Some countries have opted out of nuclear power in light of concerns about safety and other issues. Many others, however, still see a role for nuclear in their energy transitions but are not doing enough to meet their goals,” it says.

The new report finds that extending the operational life of existing nuclear plants requires substantial capital investment. But the IEA says its cost is competitive with other electricity generation technologies, including new solar and wind projects, and can lead to a more secure, less disruptive energy transition.

“Market conditions remain unfavourable, however, for lengthening the lifetimes of nuclear plants. An extended period of low wholesale electricity prices in most advanced economies has sharply reduced or eliminated profit margins for many technologies, putting nuclear plants at risk of shutting down early,” according to the report.

“In the United States, for example, some 90 reactors have 60-year operating licenses, yet several have already retired early and many more are at risk. In Europe, Japan and other advanced economies, extensions of plants’ lifetimes also face uncertain prospects.”

Investment in new nuclear projects in advanced economies is even more difficult, the IEA said. New projects planned in Finland, France and the United States are not yet in service and have faced major cost overruns. Korea has been an important exception, with a record of completing construction of new projects on time and on budget, though government policy aims to end new nuclear construction.

“A sharp decline in nuclear power capacity in advanced economies would have major implications. Without additional lifetime extensions and new builds, achieving key sustainable energy goals, including international climate targets, would become more difficult and expensive,” the IEA said.

“If other low-carbon sources, namely wind and solar PV, are to fill the shortfall in nuclear, their deployment would have to accelerate to an unprecedented level.”