Nuclear Power and Climate Change

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      • Background and Introduction

      • Findings of the NEA Study

      • Challenges for the Nuclear Industry

      • Conclusions


      • Nuclear Power and the Environment Today

      • Energy Demand and Supply Outlook

      • Illustrative Nuclear Variants

      • Feasibility of the Nuclear Variants

      • Challenges for the Nuclear Industry

      • Impact of the Nuclear Variants on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

      • Concluding Remarks




Background and Introduction

 In the Kyoto Protocol, agreed upon by the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 1997, Annex I countries committed to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Also, the Protocol states that Annex I countries shall undertake promotion, research, development and increased use of new and renewable forms of energy, of carbon dioxide sequestration technologies and of advanced and innovative environmentally sound technologies. One important option that could be covered by the last phrase, and is not specifically mentioned, is nuclear energy which is essentially carbon free.

In this connection, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has investigated the role that nuclear power could play in alleviating the risk of global climate change. The main objective of the study is to provide a quantitative basis for assessing the consequences for the nuclear sector and for the reduction of GHG emissions of alternative nuclear development paths. The analysis covers the economic, financial, industrial and potential environmental effects of three alternative nuclear power development paths (“nuclear variants”).

  • Variant I, “continued nuclear growth”, assumes that nuclear power capacity would grow steadily, reaching 1 120 GWe* in 2050.

  • Variant II, “phase-out”, assumes that nuclear power would be phased out completely by 2045.

  • Variant III, “stagnation followed by revival”, assumes early retirements of nuclear units in the short term (to 2015) followed by a revival of the nuclear option by 2020 leading to the same nuclear capacity in 2050 as in variant I.

Findings of the NEA Study

Each of the three variants would create challenges for the nuclear sector, but all of them would be feasible in terms of: construction rate; financing; siting and land requirements; and natural resources.

The nuclear industry can achieve the required rate of nuclear power plant construction. In variant I, nuclear power capacity would more than treble between 1995 and 2050, reaching 1 120 GWe in 2050. However, the nuclear unit construction rate would remain rather modest globally, not exceeding 35 GWe per year in the period 2010 2050. Past experience has shown that this construction rate is achievable. For example, the actual rate of nuclear plant grid connections was 32 GWe per year in 1984 and 1985. The higher construction rate in variant III might pose challenges for the nuclear industry, in particular following a long period of low activity.

Cumulative investment requirements can be met. When viewed in absolute magnitudes, the investment requirements of the energy sector appear enormous; however, they would represent only a small fraction of the total capital flows available up to 2050. The real challenge in raising funds for energy investments, and in particular for nuclear facility investments, is not the level of funding requirements, but rather the perceived financial risks to investors and the need for adequate rates of return on energy investments. In the case of developing countries, implementation of variants I and III would require international co operation, including technology transfer and financing support from OECD countries.

Siting of nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities will not be a constraint at the global level, although some countries might have difficulties in finding adequate sites meeting the seismicity characteristics and cooling capacities required for nuclear units. New reactor designs, especially small and medium- sized reactors with passive safety features and very low risk of off site impact in case of accident, would increase the number of sites suitable for constructing and operating nuclear units.

Natural resources of nuclear fuel can support the projected levels of nuclear power development. In the medium term, fuel availability might be a concern in some cases. However, natural resource levels, technological means and industrial capabilities are adequate to give a reasonably high degree of assurance that all resource demands of the three variants considered can be met to 2050. Breeder reactors could make nuclear power an essentially renewable energy source, through the replacement of fissile material consumed.

Nuclear power can contribute significantly to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. In variant I, annual reductions in GHG emissions (expressed as CO2 equivalent) would reach some 6.3 Gigatonnes (Gt) in 2050, i.e. around one-third of the total GHG emissions from the energy sector. Cumulative avoided GHG emissions to 2050 would be nearly 200 Gt in variant I, around 100 Gt in variant III and some 55 Gt in variant II. The factor of four greater reduction in GHG emissions from variant I (continued nuclear growth), relative to variant II (nuclear phase-out), highlights the significant role that an expanded use of nuclear energy could play in helping to alleviate the risk of global climate change. In variant III (stagnation followed by revival) the cumulative avoided GHG emissions to 2050 are only about half of those in variant II, even though both variants reach the same level of nuclear electricity generation in 2050. This illustrates clearly the importance of timely implementation.

Challenges for the Nuclear Industry

  • Variant I: The main challenges would be to ensure that nuclear power retains and improves it economic competitive position relative to alternative energy sources, and to enhance public understanding and acceptance of nuclear power.

  • Variant II: The nuclear sector will be challenged to meet the need for maintaining capabilities and know how to ensure the safe decommissioning of nuclear units and final disposal of radioactive wastes. Nuclear industries in a number of OECD countries have demonstrated already that capability. This variant might exacerbate challenges within the non nuclear energy sectors, in regard to long term security of supply and meeting UNFCCC commitments.

  • Variant III: would challenge the nuclear industry to ensure that technical and economic preparedness would be maintained and enhanced during more than two decades of stagnation, in order to keep the nuclear option open. A revival of nuclear power by 2015 is assumed to be based upon technologies that are able to compete favourably with advanced fossil fuelled technologies, renewable sources and other options for alleviating the risk of global climate change.


 Nuclear power is one of the options available for alleviating the risk of global climate change and its potential contribution to GHG emissions reduction could be significant. Keeping the nuclear option open in order to realise this potential will require a number of actions by governments and by industries in the nuclear sector.

 In a longer-term perspective, non electrical applications of nuclear energy, such as heat, potable water and hydrogen production, could be developed, and these applications could enlarge significantly nuclear power’s contribution to GHG emission reduction. Research and development would be necessary in order to assess fully the technical feasibility of those applications at the industrial level and the economic competitiveness of nuclear versus fossil fuels and renewable sources. Governments could play an important role by supporting such research and development, and international organisations could assist in this process by promoting and facilitating exchange of information.

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