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What role can nuclear energy play in combating climate change? According to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), it can play a very pivotal one.

The world is not on track to limit the rise in global mean temperatures to 2°C. To stay within this threshold, the global power sector, which currently emits some 40% of global carbon emissions, will need to be virtually decarbonised by 2050.

A policy paper by the NEA explains how nuclear power can contribute to this goal (see references). Nuclear energy produces 11% of global electricity, the second largest source of low-carbon power after hydro. In its 2°C scenario, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the share of nuclear energy in global electricity production would have to rise to 17% in 2050, and installed capacity from 390 GW to 930 GW over the same time frame.

Nuclear power saves almost 2 Gt of CO2 emissions each year and avoided more than 60 Gt of CO2 emissions over the 1970-2015 period, the NEA paper points out, adding that nuclear energy is the only large scale source of low-carbon electricity that is both dispatchable and scalable. In addition, according to the NEA, its contribution to sustainable economic, social and environmental development goes beyond reducing carbon emissions; the reliable, round-the-clock provision of electricity at predictable costs, the absence of local pollutant emissions, and security of supply, not to mention benefits in terms of skills, jobs and the economy.

There are challenges, including for financing and managing a complex construction process. There are also key issues, such as assuring non-proliferation and plant safety as nuclear energy grows, managing waste, and the fact that nuclear energy can itself be vulnerable to climate change, though the NEA is confident these issues are being addressed. Securing uranium supply will also be important, for although there is a 100 years of supply at current consumption rates, more investment in mines will be needed.

Also, though nuclear fission does not produce any CO2 or other greenhouse gases, there are some indirect emissions that can be attributed to nuclear energy, in construction for instance, and from fossil fuels used in uranium mining. On the plus side, the NEA points out that the only local airborne emissions from the generation stage of the nuclear fuel cycle are minor.

In short, the contribution of nuclear power to combating climate change could prove more important than ever, and it could become the single most important source of electricity. But as the NEA warns, clear and sustained policy support from governments is needed before significant nuclear power expansion can begin in any country.

IEA-NEA (2015), Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy, Paris

OECD-NEA (2015), “Nuclear Energy: Combating Climate Change”, OECD Publishing, available at http://oe.cd/1aD

Visit www.oecd-nea.org   

©OECD Observer No 304 November 2015