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Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2020

Climate change is widely recognized as a major threat to humanity and much of the natural world. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in an effort to avert the worst effects of climate change would require energy production and use to be fully decarbonized by 2050. Rapid reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would need to start immediately.

Nuclear power is a large-scale, concentrated energy source that provides round-the-clock electricity. Yet it is flexible enough to contribute effectively to low carbon energy systems with large shares of variable renewable sources like wind and solar. Its GHG emissions per kilowatt-hour are 40 times less than those of an efficient gas-fired power plant.

Climate Change and Nuclear Power provides an overview of the most important linkages between climate change and nuclear energy’s role in mitigating it. Building on statistics and scenarios from organizations including the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the IPCC, this publication summarizes the role of the energy sector in climate change and the possible contribution of nuclear energy in reducing future GHG emissions. Selected issues pertaining to the challenges and development of nuclear energy (waste management, investment costs, technology development, etc.) are also presented.

The 2020 Edition

The publication’s 2020 edition focuses on the energy system and market related factors that can enable the significant nuclear capacity increase required in various decarbonization pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C. A broad scope from plant construction to operation, from electricity markets to products beyond electricity, from policy instruments to stakeholder involvement is covered.

The following key findings have been identified in this edition (click here for interactive versions of the graphics):

  • Nuclear has a strong track record of CO2 emission avoidance. Annual CO2 emissions of the global electricity sector would have been around 2 gigatonnes higher over the past decade if electricity from nuclear power plants had instead been supplied using the average global fossil fuel generation mix.
  • Nuclear power is an attractive option in many countries, irrespective of their level of economic development. By the end of 2019, nuclear projects were ongoing in 19 countries, with a quarter of reactors under construction located in lower income countries. These countries often feature growing populations and rapidly increasing electricity needs.
  • Electricity needs are poised to rise substantially in the decades to come. An analysis of over 400 recent long-term energy scenarios suggests a 20% to 330% increase in electricity consumption by 2050.
  • An increasing role for nuclear power is seen across many scenarios resulting in lower CO2 emissions, implying significant additional market and policy action beyond current trends.
  • Four enabling factors have been identified to deliver the mitigation potential of nuclear power in line with many long term decarbonization scenarios, including the four IPCC illustrative pathways.
  • In addition to a firm political commitment to full decarbonization, five broad measures and principles can support the transition to a reliable, low carbon energy system in liberalized markets have been identified.
  • Robust supply chains, capable of delivering equipment, systems and services with the highest quality levels and with high degree of standardisation, are vital to the success of nuclear new builds.
  • The extension of the operational lifetimes of existing NPPs in the short to medium terms will provide an economically sound and effective contribution to climate change mitigation.
  • Despite their frequency in some regions, the operational outages forced by extreme weather conditions have resulted in limited production loss, demonstrating the climate resilience of NPPs.

Click here for interactive versions of the graphics.

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