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Nuclear Power Finally Has its Moment at UN Climate Summit


The Tripling Nuclear Energy by 2050, Net Zero Nuclear Event, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference UNCCC, took place at Expo City Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 2 December 2023. (Dean Calma / IAEA)

For the past 28 years, world leaders and environmental activists have convened annually at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) with an almost singular focus on variable renewable energy such as solar and wind as the solution to global warming. And since the first COP in 1995, the share of fossil fuels in the global energy supply has remained virtually unchanged at around 80 percent.

Meanwhile, the only energy source along with hydropower that has demonstrated the ability to decarbonize electricity supply on a national scale has mostly been taboo at the global climate gathering.

Until now.

Nuclear power has surged to the top of world headlines at COP28 in Dubai, where leaders from 22 countries on four continents came together on 2 December to announce a  declaration to advance a global aspirational goal of tripling global nuclear energy capacity by 2050 to meet climate goals and energy needs. The landmark declaration invited the World Bank, regional development banks and international financial institutions to include nuclear in their lending, while underscoring the need for secure supply chains to ramp up deployment of the technology.

“After 28 years in the wilderness, nuclear is finally having its moment at the world’s most important gathering on climate change—and not a moment too soon,” said Zion Lights, a former UK spokesperson for the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion. “As someone who once protested against nuclear energy and changed her mind about it, it is heartening to see just how much attitudes to nuclear energy have changed.”

The declaration came amid a flurry of other pro-nuclear power announcements at COP28, hosted by the government of the United Arab Emirates, which is completing construction on a massive four-unit nuclear power plant as part of an ambitious drive to decarbonize electricity production. The Agency led the way on 1 December when Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi unveiled the IAEA Statement on Nuclear Power, backed by dozens of countries. The next day, Mr Grossi, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and French President Emmanuel Macron announced the world’s first Nuclear Energy Summit, to be held in Brussels in March 2024 to maintain the global momentum behind nuclear energy.

“If you want to reconcile jobs creation, strategic autonomy and sovereignty, and low carbon emission, there is nothing more sustainable and reliable than nuclear energy,” President Macron said at that event. France and Sweden have largely decarbonized their electricity production thanks to a mix of nuclear power and hydro—prime examples of industrialized national economies whose greenhouse gas emission levels from power generation are consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Net Zero Nuclear, an initiative by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, supported by the IAEA Atoms4NetZero Initiative launched in COP27, also issued a pledge at a COP28 Presidency event on 5 December that committed the nuclear power industry to a goal of at least tripling nuclear capacity by 2050. “Let’s translate ambition into pragmatic policies, affordable financing for nuclear, and on-time, on-budget delivery of new nuclear energy projects,” said Sama Bilbao y Leon, WNA Director General.

To be sure, COP28 is not the first UN climate summit to feature events and advocates of nuclear power. In his first official trip as IAEA Director General in 2019, Mr Grossi travelled to COP25 in Madrid to make the case for nuclear power, which provides about a quarter of the world’s low carbon electricity. Since then, the IAEA and nuclear advocates have steadily increased their presence at the annual summit, starting at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 and then last year at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, where the IAEA hosted the event’s first nuclear themed pavilion.

“As a chain reaction from the full success of Atoms4Climate at COP27, six nuclear dedicated pavilions in the Blue Zone and two nuclear pavilions in the Green Zone appeared at COP28,” Wei Huang, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Planning, Information and Knowledge Management, said at the CO28 Presidency event where he read out the IAEA Statement on Nuclear Power. In the statement, the IAEA and its Member States that are nuclear energy producers and those working with the Agency to promote the benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear energy acknowledged that all available low emission technologies should be recognized and actively supported.

Beyond the lofty declarations in Dubai, it remains unclear whether nuclear energy will feature in the final “Global Stocktake”, a key outcome expected from COP28 that will provide a snapshot of where the world stands in its efforts to achieve the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement and how countries might seek to rectify any shortcomings. In an initial document published ahead of the conference that provided global views to be considered during the official COP28 negotiations, nuclear energy was mentioned twice in suggestions to accelerate and strengthen financing and international cooperation for its deployment.

In recent years, newbuild nuclear projects in Europe and the United States have suffered construction delays and cost overruns. But projects have been delivered relatively on time and on budget in countries including Belarus, China, Republic of Korea, Russia and the UAE.

Tripling nuclear capacity by 2050 will nonetheless require overcoming major hurdles, including further enhancing international cooperation, creating an enabling policy environment, securing robust supply chains, training a skilled and diverse future workforce, and achieving greater regulatory and industrial harmonization and standardization.

“COP28 has been, in my opinion, a watershed,” Mr Grossi said in Dubai. But he also added in remarks at the summit that “achieving a fair and enabling investment environment for new nuclear projects remains an uphill battle. We are not at a level playing field yet when it comes to financing nuclear projects.”


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