New research shows that neglect of nuclear threatens low-carbon transition

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A steep decline in the use of nuclear energy in advanced economies risks jeopardizing progress towards global climate goals, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in a new report this week.

Nuclear is the world's second largest contributor of low-carbon power after hydroelectricity, providing 10 percent of global electricity generation. 

But the future of the nuclear industry is increasingly uncertain, with obstacles to both extending the operational life of existing plants and to investing in new ones.

While extending the life of older plants will require substantial capital investment, the cost of doing so is competitive with other electricity generation, the IEA suggests. However low electricity prices are disincentivizing investment, threatening plant closures even among facilities with licenses permitting years more activity. 

In the United States, for example, several of the country's 90 reactors with 60-year operating licenses already have retired early, the report details. A similar process could occur in Europe, Japan and other advanced economies, it warns.

Meanwhile investing in new nuclear projects is even more difficult, with new projects under development in Finland, France and the United States all facing significant cost overruns. Some countries — including Australia, Denmark, Ireland, Italy and Malaysia — have opted out of nuclear power altogether.

"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 report warns.

Such a decline in nuclear generation would create major challenges for a world seeking to cut its carbon emissions in line with blueprints such as the Paris Agreement, the IEA argues.

The world would need to deploy new wind turbines and solar panels at unprecedented speed to fill the gap, it warns. In the past 20 years, wind and solar have increased their capacity by 580GW in advanced economies; in the next 20, these economies would require an expansion nearly five times that size without nuclear, it concludes.

Even if this capacity increase could be achieved, there would be additional difficulties with integrating intermittent renewable power into the grid. Clean energy transitions in advanced economies would require $1.6 trillion in additional investment over that period, the IEA calculates, pushing up electricity bills.  

Allowing nuclear power capacity to leak away in the hope that renewable sources could pick up the slack therefore would be a big gamble, the report concludes — estimating that it risks an additional 4 billion tonnes of carbon emissions.

"Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder," said Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director. "Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security. But unless the barriers it faces are overcome, its role will soon be on a steep decline worldwide, particularly in the United States, Europe and Japan."

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