This year’s COP28 climate conference has a historic agreement to “switch away” from fossil fuels. One less fractured undercurrent was renewed enthusiasm for nuclear energy as a way to get there.
International climate negotiators have explicitly mentioned the technology as a route to decarbonisation in their first “inventory” of global emissions. Looking back over the final texts agreed at the annual UN climate conference since the 2015 Paris Agreement, this is the first time the word “nuclear power” has ever been used.
Twenty-five countries made the point even more emphatic at the start of the conference in Dubai, where they – led by the US – pledged to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050.
“We’ve never had anything like this on nuclear power at a COP,” said Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, which promotes technological solutions to environmental challenges. “It reflects how much attitudes have changed over the past decade.”
Nordhaus is among those who have argued for decades that splitting atoms could be an important tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. However, critics have cited safety concerns, especially for the indigenous communities who are disproportionately affected by a reactor’s life cycle. Some also argue that expensive investments in reactors could distract from the need to develop other options, such as solar and wind. In 2015, one commenter went going so far as to call the advocacy of nuclear power a new form of “climate denial”.
Whatever the reasons, nuclear power has been on a downward trajectory lately. The share of global electricity derived from it fell to 9.2 percent, she said lowest level since the 1980s. By the 2040s, more nuclear facilities are expected to be decommissioned than to come online. The latest commitments at COP28 are an effort to not only reverse that trend, but to dramatically expand the world’s nuclear footprint. But several nuclear experts say the tripling target is almost certainly unattainable, if not irresponsible.
“It’s an essentially meaningless commitment,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He noted that some of the countries that signed the pledge don’t even generate nuclear power, so a tripling would still technically be zero. And that doesn’t include China or Russia, which are world leaders in terms of nuclear ambition. Even Nordhaus admits that “it’s not really clear that anyone has a particularly credible plan.”
Efforts to maintain and expand nuclear power have recently stumbled. The Biden administration recently had to provide a $1.1 billion bailout to keep a legacy nuclear plant in California running, and a highly anticipated foray into smaller reactors fell apart. This points to perhaps the most important impediment to a more nuclear future: cost.
“Nuclear is so much more expensive than solar,” Allison Macfarlane, the former chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that it would take tens, or even hundreds, of billions of dollars to bring some of the proposed technology to market. . “The only people who have that kind of money are governments”
Even if the finances make sense, she said, time is not on nuclear’s side. It can take a decade or two for a facility to come online, making it difficult to scale quickly enough to meet climate goals and make a dent in the climate crisis. While that would have been possible if the nuclear revival had started a decade or two ago, she said it’s too late now.
“Nuclear power is not a short-term solution to climate change. We need a solution yesterday,” said Macfarlane, who is currently the director of the school of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia. Instead, she advocates putting money into technologies that can be deployed today, such as solar and wind. “We must direct our energy immediately to everything we can build.”
For Lyman, the nuclear pledges at COP28 are worse than empty – they could be detrimental or even dangerous. “It damages the credibility of the US and any other signatory countries,” he said. This includes Japan, which was home to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Broken promises can mean that future statements are taken less seriously.
Beyond politics, Lyman worries that renewed pressure on nuclear power could lead companies, governments, or both to cut corners or limit regulations in the name of financial gain or expediency. That, he said, “is a recipe for disaster.”