With world leaders scheduled to meet next week to agree upon joint actions to tackle climate change, will nuclear energy play an important role in climate discussions for a low carbon growth

Two Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) under construction at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, India (Image by Petr Pavlicek / IAEA)

Two Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) under construction at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, India (Image by Petr Pavlicek / IAEA)

The Paris climate summit will carry a whole lot of significance. With the levels of global carbon emissions increasing significantly, COP21 has been touted as a ‘make or break’ summit to come up with a consensus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. With electricity production contributing to 31% of global emissions, will the leaders consider the role of nuclear power for electricity generation?

This is an important question to examine as 170 nations, including India, have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions (INDC) to fight climate change. These nations represent 91% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In its INDC, India has committed itself to achieve 63 GW installed nuclear capacity by 2032, if the supply of fuel is ensured. With a 2.2% share in current installed capacity, the total installed capacity of nuclear power in operation is 5.78 GW now. Plus, six reactors with an installed capacity of 4.3 GW are at different stages of commissioning and construction.

Unlike fossil fuels like coal, nuclear power generates low carbon electricity which could be helpful in combating climate change but due to safety concerns it is often seen as a dangerous source of power.

Perceptions around the world

The international community shares divergent views on utilizing nuclear energy for generating electricity. Major nuclear mishaps – Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 – caused a huge setback, raising fundamental questions over the use of nuclear power.

For example, the European Union and its member countries are divided on employing nuclear energy. Several countries, including Germany, Austria, and Italy, comprise the ‘no nuclear’ camp. They are slowly phasing out their reactors in a bid to encourage and develop renewable energy. On the other hand, France and Britain have pro nuclear governments, nuclear forms a large chunk of their energy plan. The recent involvement of China in support of construction of British nuclear power plants exhibits the growing Chinese nuclear agenda.

After the Three Mile Island mishap of 1979, the US retracted several of its nuclear plans. However, after 1999 it adopted a more positive stance towards nuclear energy by commissioning over 100 reactors which generate about 19% of its power.

Overall, nuclear energy contributes about 11% of the world’s electricity with over 435 nuclear reactors operating in 31 countries.

Is nuclear the right answer?

As the critics put it, nuclear energy is seen not only as a threat to humanity but also as an expensive affair to manage. Its proponents point out that nuclear power is reasonably economically competitive. The levelised cost of electricity generated by nuclear power can be USD 26-64 per MWh whereas that of coal is USD 65-95 per MWh. Overall nuclear power is far cheaper than power from fossil fuels.

Admittedly, nuclear waste is radioactive but there are several ways to ensure its safe disposal.

Where does nuclear figure in COP21?

As far as COP21 is concerned, it is expected to lead to an international agreement to counter climate change. After the failure of the Copenhagen Accord, energy related carbon emissions have attained alarming levels.

It has been assessed that nuclear energy could make a sizeable contribution to this universal climate agreement. The International Atomic Energy Association report Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2015 says, “Nuclear power is among the energy sources and technologies available today that could help meet the climate-energy challenge.”

According to the IAEA, if nations depend on nuclear energy to generate electricity, the world could witness a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that can range between 3.3 and 9 gigatonnes per year by 2050.

It also says utilizing nuclear power means not just less emissions but also faster security of energy supply and subsequent industrial development by providing electricity at stable and foreseeable prices.

Renewables definitely provide a suitable alternative to fossil fuels and some may say even to nuclear but they depend on local circumstances and technology prowess of a particular country. Development of renewable energy is a time-consuming process.

There is no denying that nuclear energy can play a key role in countering climate change. Investment in nuclear energy should be one of the important points of discussion in Paris.

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