In May 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an independent initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy, published a report, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System,” that reports its findings on the role of nuclear power in advanced economies. The IEA points out that nuclear power has averted the production of nearly 60 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) worldwide since it came into civilian use, but notes that declining investment and use of nuclear power technology will pose a challenge to mid-century decarbonization goals set by the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.
The report details the challenges in maintaining nuclear power production facilities across the globe and market barriers to investment in maintaining and growing nuclear power production, and makes several predictions about how this will affect global efforts to limit CO2emissions. The report concludes with policy recommendations for advanced economies to mitigate challenges to maintaining and increasing nuclear power production, including:
1.Authorize lifetime extensions for existing nuclear plants: many nuclear reactors are decommissioned long before what is considered their safe lifetime of operation. Extending the authorizations for these facilities will help mitigate costs associated with building new reactors.
2.Structure energy markets to support the specific challenges of nuclear power production: challenges such as technical and regulatory limitations to the dispatchability (or power output adaptation) of nuclear power production put the technology at a disadvantage compared to non-renewable energy sources. Compensating for these challenges will help improve nuclear power production’s viability.
3.Compensate nuclear power production for its non-market benefits: recognizing and valuing nuclear power’s role in reducing carbon emission by providing benefits such as carbon credits or long-term price guarantees.
4.Improve regulations to ensure more flexible and safe nuclear power operations:updating regulations to allow nuclear power production to safely provide ancillary services (i.e., providing continuous backup when power output disturbances occur in other sources).
5.Support attractive financing for maintenance and investment in nuclear power: long term pricing guarantees or fixed loan guarantees can significantly improve nuclear power production as investors can be given greater confidence in supporting nuclear ventures.
6.Improve standards and licensing procedures to limit licensing delays and costs: Standardization and more efficient licensing administrative procedures can help eliminate common setbacks in nuclear power production while also propitiating investors weary of inaccurate cost predictions.
7.Support innovation in nuclear power production: investment in research and development innew innovations in nuclear power production, such as small modular reactors, promise a means of mitigating many of the challenges and limits to traditional nuclear power production.
8.Support human capital: Due in part to the inherent slow pace of nuclear deployment, both in construction and authorization, support should be provided to maintain expertise and capacity to operate nuclear facilities.
It is worth noting that the report’s conclusions are in line with current DOE and Administration policy promoting the use and growth of nuclear power, and as such may be discounted by some. However, given the major challenges involved in decarbonizing the US and world economy by mid-century, as the signatories to the Paris Agreement agree must be done, few would contest that maintaining nuclear power as a major source of energy must be at least seriously considered as part of any climate change solution.