The U.S. and 21 other countries have said they want to triple the global generation capacity of nuclear power by mid-century. The pledge, announced Dec. 2 at the United Nations’ COP28 climate summit in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), comes as more of the world’s governments say increased use of nuclear power is critical to reduce emissions of carbon and combat climate change.
Countries involved in Saturday’s announcement, along with the U.S., include Canada, the UK, France, South Korea, and the UAE. Officials have said increasing nuclear power in Europe would help European nations reduce dependence on oil and gas from Russia, while conceding it will require major investment. Data from nuclear power analysts has shown that in countries with the most nuclear power capacity, many projects over the past several years have experienced delays and cost overruns.
That includes the two-unit expansion of the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia. Unit 3 at Vogtle came online this past summer, some seven years after it originally was expected to begin service. Unit 3 is the first newly-constructed nuclear unit in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Unit 4 at Vogtle is expected to enter commercial operation in the next few months. Officials have said the cost to build the two units, which feature Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, has surpassed $34 billion—more than double original estimates.
Craig Piercy, executive director of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), in a statement emailed to POWER on Saturday, said about the “Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy”: “On behalf of America’s nuclear professionals, we applaud the historic commitment made today by the U.S. and 21 other countries to tripling global nuclear energy production by 2050. This is real, tangible climate action in meeting the world’s clean energy needs. Tripling the world’s nuclear energy supplies by 2050 is the catalyst required to halt rising temperatures and achieve a sustainable future while lifting millions out of poverty.”
Global Nuclear Generation Capacity at 371 GW
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that global nuclear power generation capacity was about 371 GW at the end of 2022, with 411 reactors in operation.
Piercy added, “The Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy also recognizes the key role of carbon-free nuclear energy in halting climate change—and calls on international financial institutions to craft nuclear-inclusive lending policies. A rapid, large-scale deployment of new reactors around the world can only happen with the end of financing bans against nuclear energy projects by multilateral banks like the World Bank.”
The U.S. Dept. of Energy in a statement said the agency “recognizes the key role of nuclear energy in achieving global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and keeping the 1.5-degree goal [of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate] within reach.”
Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the policy organization of the nuclear technologies industry, in an October speech said there is bipartisan support in Congress for nuclear power. Korsnick at that time said, “Nuclear energy had support under the Biden administration, and it also had support under the Trump administration. So, it really should leave no question about the government’s view—nuclear is vital to a clean-energy grid and to our economic future.”
Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, in an email to POWER on Dec. 4 wrote that “Given [NIA’s] work on advanced nuclear, we welcome this weekend’s announcement of a new global goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050. This goal is broader and even more ambitious than our previous call for a doubling of nuclear energy in the U.S. by 2050 as outlined in our Fission Vision report published in April of 2022.”
Greenwald wrote, “We welcome this broad support for advanced nuclear development and look forward to working with policymakers, regulators, non-governmental organizations and industry to ensure we meet it. The challenge will be building on the momentum created with this announcement to address the real barriers to continued development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy not just in the U.S., but around the world … we look forward to the ongoing partnership between the 20 countries that committed to this goal and what that means for the future of nuclear energy.”
U.S. Nuclear Capacity
Nuclear power in the U.S., about 95 GW of capacity generated by more than 90 operating reactors, accounts for about 20% of the nation’s electricity production. John Kerry, the Biden administration’s climate envoy, at the UAE conference said there are “trillions of dollars” available for investment in nuclear power. “We are not making the argument to anybody that this is absolutely going to be the sweeping alternative to every other energy source … no, that’s not what brings us here,” said Kerry. He said, though, echoing statements from other energy analysts, that “you can’t get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear.”
Though nuclear power is carbon-free, opponents point to concerns about disposal of spent nuclear fuel—nuclear waste—and potential of accidents that could release radiation into areas near nuclear power plants.
France, with more than 50 reactors and 61 GW of generation, is Europe’s biggest producer of nuclear power. It is second globally only to the U.S. in nuclear capacity, and receives about 70% of its electricity from nuclear.
French President Emmanuel Macron said nuclear is an “indispensable solution” to help fight climate change. Macron is a supporter of small modular reactors (SMRs), which many in the nuclear industry say is the best way to rapidly increase generation capacity. SMRs are touted as cheaper to build, operate, and scale than large utility-scale reactors.
Financial Support Needed
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden, another country involved in the nuclear pledge, said the World Bank and other international financial institutions must help finance nuclear power projects. Kristersson said governments must “assume a role in sharing the financial risks to strengthen the conditions and provide additional incentives for investments in nuclear energy.”
Other countries signing on to Saturday’s agreement include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ghana, Hungary, Japan, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
Notably absent from the agreement is Germany, which this year closed its last three nuclear power plants.
Data from the World Nuclear Association published in November shows about 60 reactors are under construction worldwide, with another 110 in the planning stage. Most of those reactors are of Russian or Chinese design.
The International Energy Agency has said China, which had installed nuclear generation capacity of 57 GW at the end of June 2023 according to government data, will become the leading producer of nuclear power by 2030. The China Nuclear Energy Association last year said the country could add as many as 10 reactors annually over the next several years, and could have as much as 300 GW of nuclear power capacity online by 2035. The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, though, earlier this year said reaching about 100 GW of generation capacity by 2030 is “more likely” for China.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).