For the first time, nuclear energy was represented at the COP table and its increasing acceptance, especially among young people, was palpable. It had been a long time coming for nuclear, which produces more low-carbon energy than any other source except hydropower.
Today, just a few months after COP, we are seeing the consequences of military conflict in Ukraine begin to turn that interest into action.
Governments from Belgium to Japan have announced their intention to extend the lives of nuclear power plants, citing concerns about geopolitical instability. Across the world, leaders are worried about shortages in the supply of oil and natural gas, and price spikes in electricity and petrol, undermining their nations’ economies and political stability.
- Nuclear is gaining increasing support in battle against climate change.
- Reaching net-zero carbon emissions will require a doubling of nuclear capacity.
- Technology such as small modular reactors and spent fuel repositories are increasing nuclear accessibility and safety.
As a team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts and I made our way to the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last November, the growing energy crisis was already apparent in queues at petrol stations and among concerned conversations about the 400% rise in natural gas prices.
The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) calls this our first global energy crisis. There’s little doubt this crisis will accelerate a shift in our energy infrastructure. Still to be decided is whether it will be coal and gas, or nuclear, that work together with hydro, wind, solar and other renewables to deliver uninterrupted electricity. If, despite the short-term pressures, governments prioritize moving to more predictable long-term prices, meeting their climate targets, and reducing the 8 million annual deaths caused by air pollution, nuclear capacity will grow.
Forecasters including those at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IEA, and the IAEA have looked at data that underpin where we are today and where nations say they want to be in the coming decades, and have concluded the journey will require a doubling of nuclear capacity.
I am confident it can be done. It has been done before. Forty per cent of today’s operating nuclear power plants were built as a result of the last major energy crisis and now – after considerable upfront costs – supply some of the cheapest electricity in the world. Technically, nuclear has the advantage of the atom’s high energy density, meaning it can supply uninterruptible energy at scale with a comparably minimal physical, as well as carbon, footprint; its fuel can be stored to avoid big price fluctuations or supply interruptions; and the physical size of its waste is small.
This article is part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting