Nuclear power has been a major low-carbon source of electricity production for decades, ensuring affordable and reliable energy to millions around the world. Today, the nuclear industry is still very active, with 2018 being the record year of capacity additions in almost three decades, over 50 reactors under construction worldwide and many more planned. Innovation is being pursued on numerous fronts, from new generation types to small modular reactors, and from experimental reactors to nuclear fusion. The centre of gravity of nuclear deployment has shifted markedly in recent years from advanced to emerging and developing economies and is set to continue as they double their market share in global nuclear capacity over the next twenty years. Energy security, low-carbon electricity generation and reliability are crucial elements underpinning this deployment. However, nuclear power also has significant economic development and geopolitical implications. On the back of strong and consistent domestic deployment programmes, Russia is currently the largest exporter of nuclear technology, and China is set to become a major player as well. Advanced economies – once the major player and exporter – are now facing the ageing of their fleets, the evaluation of lifetime extensions and the need for new construction. Nuclear is not without challenges: high upfront investment costs, means and costs of financing, delays in construction time, and strong opposition from population segments, in particular in some European countries that led to the immediate interruption of, or the gradual opt-out from nuclear programs. Solutions to the economic challenges exist, as Russia and China are clearly demonstrating. Europe has the largest nuclear fleet in the world, a fully integrated industrial supply chain and an important innovation ecosystem. For some regions, not pursuing or abandoning the nuclear option will make it significantly harder to reach decarbonisation goals in a timely and cost-effective manner. A carbon-free future requires all technologies to play their part, and nuclear can play a key role in these efforts, including for non-electric applications such as heat generation, hydrogen production and desalination. Policy makers should take action to ensure that the nuclear industry can play its part in contributing to the 2050 decarbonisation vision.
This study was written by Marco Baroni, an Energy Expert, former Head of Power Generation Analysis in the World Energy Outlook team of the International Energy Agency and current energy consultant and lecturer at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).