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COP28's Plan to Increase Nuclear Capacity is Not Realistic

As Dubai made headlines with its ambitious goal to triple its renewable energy capacity by 2030, a parallel development unfolded at a contentious summit. Here, 25 countries informally agreed to a bold pledge: they aim to triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

In December 2023, the climate summit in Dubai, known as COP28, concluded with a push for moving away from fossil fuel dependency towards cleaner energy sources. The summit unveiled two commitments: a feasible one endorsed by 123 nations and embedded in the COP28 agreement, focusing on renewable energy and efficiency, and a second, more aspirational pledge about nuclear energy, which only garnered the support of 25 countries.


Exploring historical data, it's clear that achieving a threefold increase in nuclear energy generation by 2050 is highly unlikely. The "World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR2023)" notes that the current global nuclear capacity stands at 365 gigawatts (GW) as of July 2023. To reach the target of nearly 1.1 terawatts (TW) within 27 years would require unprecedented growth. 


Looking back 27 years to 1996, global nuclear capacity was slightly lower, at 344 GW. Since then, growth has been minimal, averaging just 800 megawatts (MW) per year. This pace suggests that by 2050, we might only see an increase to 386 GW, far short of the ambitious goal set by international climate commitments.


Additionally, nuclear energy's share of global electricity production has been declining, from 17.5% in 1996 to 9.2% by 2023, as per the WNISR2023. In contrast, renewables like solar and wind have surged from 1.2% to 14.4% in the same timeframe, supported by significant cost reductions. For instance, the cost to generate solar and wind power in the U.S. dropped by 83% and 63%, respectively, from 2009 to 2023, while nuclear energy costs increased by 47%.


Building the necessary reactors to triple nuclear capacity would be astronomically expensive. New reactors cost about $15 billion per gigawatt, totaling an estimated $11 trillion for the required 730 GW. This figure doesn't even account for replacing older reactors that will be decommissioned.


Despite these challenges, some nuclear supporters argue that advancements, such as small modular reactors (SMRs), could reduce costs. However, SMRs suffer from a lack of economies of scale, making them more expensive per megawatt than larger reactors. Historical data from the U.S. show that smaller reactors built before 1975 were economically unviable and were decommissioned early.


An example of the high cost associated with SMRs is the abandoned NuScale project in Utah, which was projected to cost $9.3 billion for just 462 MW of capacity. This suggests a cost of $20 billion per gigawatt, significantly higher than current estimates for larger plants.


The consistent trend of nuclear projects exceeding budget and time estimates further complicates the picture. A study found that nearly all nuclear projects reviewed ran over budget, with costs averaging 117% over initial estimates.

M.V. Ramana, an expert in the field, underscores these points, highlighting the financial and logistical challenges that make nuclear energy an impractical solution to climate change, in contrast to the more favorable economics and scalability of renewable energy sources.

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