20-plus countries pledge to triple the world’s nuclear energy by 2050

At COP28, many major players are banding together to plan a big ramp-up of nuclear power. But without China’s help, is the target realistic?
By Eric Wesoff

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Dignitaries and diplomats stand on a stage lined with national flags under the words TRIPLING NUCLEAR ENERGY BY 2050
(Dean Calma/International Atomic Energy Agency)

COP28 might be remembered as the nuclear COP.”

More than 20 countries including the U.S., France, Japan and the United Kingdom have pledged to triple global nuclear energy generation by 2050 at the launch of COP28 in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the world’s annual climate summit.

John Kerry, former U.S. secretary of state and President Biden’s climate envoy, made the case for nuclear energy during the event’s launch ceremonies, saying that the science has proven you can’t get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear.”

While there are important methane, climate-finance and environmental-justice initiatives being hammered out at the conference, the nuclear goal stands out as a bit of a policy departure compared to previous COP meetings. Nuclear has received little attention at past COPs due to its cost challenges and lingering controversies surrounding its safety and other issues.

There’s another reason for this being considered the nuclear COP: The United Arab Emirates, COP28’s host, is on the verge of completing the second nuclear facility in the Middle East, which will provide one-quarter of the country’s electricity. Construction on the power plant began in 2012, and the last of its four 1.4-gigawatt reactors at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant has just received its operating license from regulators.

The leaders spearheading COP28’s ramped-up nuclear targets are heeding the prescriptions set forth in many major climate-change models, including the International Energy Agency’s, which call for massive growth in global nuclear energy capacity in order to have a chance of meeting net-zero goals and keeping global warming in check. (However, there are certainly opposing models showing a path to zero emissions without a significant scale-up of nuclear power.)

Today’s global fleet of approximately 440 nuclear reactors has a combined capacity of around 400 gigawatts — enough that nuclear energy provides about 10 percent of the world’s power. But less than a paltry 4 gigawatts of nuclear energy has been connected to the grid in 2023. The global solar industry is forecast to install more than 400 gigawatts of capacity in 2023 alone.

The goal of tripling the world’s nuclear output would require deploying an average of 40 gigawatts of nuclear power every year through 2050, according to the World Nuclear Association. (My back-of-the-envelope calculations point to an even higher number if replacing existing aged-out equipment is included in the mix.)

The COP28 declaration includes language about nuclear’s contribution in keeping a 1.5°C limit on temperature rise within reach and its energy-security benefits, as well as the claim that paring down the world’s nuclear power would make reaching net zero more difficult and costly. Nuclear’s potential role in hard-to-abate sectors such as hydrogen production and petrochemical processing is also highlighted.

The pledge also asks the signees to consider smaller and more innovative reactor designs in their grid planning and makes an appeal that they continue to maintain the existing reactor fleet, extending its lifetime if feasible and safe.

Over the past few decades, the hefty price tag of building nuclear plants has been the industry’s Achilles’ heel. This poses particular challenges in market-based economies, where periods of high interest rates and inflation threaten the viability of mega projects, be they offshore wind, high-speed rail — or nuclear reactors.

Importantly, the COP28 declaration looks to address some of these financial flaws and invites the World Bank and other regional and international banks to include nuclear energy in their lending policies.

Ironically absent from the pool of signees is China, the only country with any real chance of meeting the COP goal. China aims to double its nuclear energy capacity by 2035 and is well on its way; as of this year, 22 nuclear plants are under construction in China with more than 70 planned.

But while the U.S. saw its first newly built nuclear reactor in decades reach commercial operation this year in Vogtle 3 and could see Vogtle 4 go online next year, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American nuclear expert willing to predict when the next reactor will be up and running.

Confronting climate change requires bold, large-scale action — and tripling nuclear generation certainly qualifies in that regard. But before overestimating the influence or significance of the COP28 nuclear pledge, I would challenge you to name COP27’s or COP26’s theme.

Still, government agencies such as the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy and a growing team of young influencers are understandably enthusiastic about nuclear’s spotlight and the aspirational growth targets unveiled at COP28. Perhaps the emphasis on nuclear at this year’s meeting reinforces the idea that we’re in the midst of a generational shift in sentiment about atomic power.

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.