The World Won’t Get To Net Zero Emissions Without Nuclear Power

Any time I write about nuclear power, it evokes passionate responses from readers. That was certainly the case following my previous article, Nuclear Power Could Cut The World’s Carbon Emissions In Half.

There is always a contingent who are convinced that all we need is solar power. I tend to think of these people as those “who haven’t done the math.” They provide lots of qualitative responses like “solar is cheaper than nuclear power” and cite solar energy’s incredible growth rate.

It is true that solar is ramping up rapidly. In fact, I have written about it many times. All the way back in 2007 I wrote The Future is Solar. I have written dozens of articles on the topic since. But some solar proponents always try to convince me that we don’t need nuclear by citing facts I already know.

Consider one of the responses to a discussion that broke out on Twitter following my previous article. Jigar Shah is the director of the Loan Programs Office of the U.S. Department of Energy. He was the founder of one of the early, successful solar companies, SunEdison. There isn’t a bigger advocate of cleantech out there than Jigar. But he knows that solar can’t do it alone, tweeting in response to someone who suggested otherwise:

Jigar argues that as fast as solar grows, it won’t be fast enough. There is a hole that nuclear has to fill. “Every model shows it.”

In fact, the International Energy Agency knows it, projecting that we will need to double the world’s nuclear output by 2050 to reach net zero energy.

That’s the difference between someone who has looked in detail at the numbers, and someone who hasn’t. It’s the reason so many environmental organizations and advocates have come to the conclusion that if we don’t have a faster ramp up of nuclear power, the world is going to keep burning coal.

Look, I wish renewables could do it all. But the largest renewable market in the world certainly doesn’t think so.

China has rolled out more solar power in recent years than any other country. Last year China’s solar output increased by 66 terawatt-hours (TWh). That was good for 35% of the entire global increase in solar power. China’s total solar generation for the year — 327 TWh — was double that of the U.S., which is in second place globally.

But that hasn’t stopped China from building both new coal-fired power plants and new nuclear plants. China’s coal consumption has more than doubled in the past 20 years. The country accounts for 53.8% of the world’s coal consumption, and last year China set a new record for coal consumption.

However, China has recognized that solar power — as fast as they are adding it — can’t do it all. That’s why China’s nuclear power output is growing steadily. Over the past decade, China’s average annual growth in nuclear power output was 16.7% — the most for any country except Iran. Over that time, China’s nuclear power consumption has increased by 320 TWh, and they still have 21 nuclear reactors under construction.

Total global nuclear consumption increased by 148 TWh in the past decade, which means outside of China, nuclear power consumption declined over the past decade.

Where is nuclear power growing? Below are the 10 countries with the fastest growth rates for nuclear power over the past decade.

  1. Iran — 41.9% average annual growth from 2011-2021
  2. China — 16.7%
  3. Pakistan — 14.9%
  4. Argentina — 5.4%
  5. India — 3.1%
  6. Russia — 2.5%
  7. Mexico — 1.7%
  8. Czech Republic — 0.8%
  9. Belgium — 0.5%
  10. Slovakia — 0.2%

Global growth is an anemic 0.5%. In the U.S., which is still the world’s largest market for nuclear power with a 29% share globally — nuclear output declined by 0.2% on average over the past decade. The European Union saw an even bigger decline, at 1.3% per year.

The EU overall is dependent upon nuclear power for 11% of its primary energy consumption. For the U.S. that number is 8.0% (this is for all energy consumption). In contrast, Asia Pacific’s, which is the region responsible for most of the world’s carbon emissions, is only dependent on nuclear power for 2.4% of its primary energy consumption.

Can Asia Pacific region continue to develop with renewables supplying the bulk of the new energy demand? Given the rapid growth of overall energy demand in the region, it appears highly unlikely that renewables alone can meet the demand. In recent years this has translated into a large expansion of fossil fuel consumption in these regions.

More nuclear power in developing regions could help supply growing energy demands without a continued explosion in the region’s carbon dioxide emissions. However, the world needs safe nuclear reactor designs, effective waste disposal solutions, and more political support.

In the next article, I will relay findings on all of these fronts from a recent conversation I had with Dr. Kathryn Huff, the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy.

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