In considering post-Glasgow pathways and implementation to net zero GHG emissions, a contentious issue is the role of nuclear energy. Although the International Energy Agency’s Roadmap to Net Zero presents a scenario that has solar and wind providing 70% of electricity by 2050, it also retains a role for nuclear in the meeting the remaining 30% of generation. But with the considerable innovation in a new generation of nuclear technologies on one hand and continuing issues of affordability, safety, and social acceptance on the other, the future of nuclear power is uncertain but potentially significant. Nuclear power was the largest source of carbon-free energy in the OECD countries in 2020. And although 70 % of world nuclear power is currently produced in seventeen OECD countries, the potential for nuclear to provide carbon-free, firm power for non-OECD countries may grow in importance given that these countries account for 60 % of global primary energy and electricity and two-thirds of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions.
Nuclear power capacity has been gradually increasing in the emerging and developing countries and generation expanded at an annual average rate of 5.6% over the 2009-2019 period. In 2020, fifteen non-OECD countries generated nuclear power that provided 5 percent of non-OECD electricity.
China and Russia dominate current generation with 70 percent of non-OECD nuclear generation and 25 of the 35 reactors currently under construction. Russia has been the major exporter of nuclear power with Bangladesh and Egypt building their first reactors with Russian support while Belarus (Russian VVER-1200) began operating their first units in 2021. China has been pursuing nuclear export opportunities in a number of non-OECD countries but its main focus has been in Pakistan where it had previously built nuclear units at Chasma. The first new Karachi 2 Hualong One Chinese went into service this year and the second Karachi 3 unit is expected to start next year. The only OECD reactor exports to the non-OECD group since the US and European exports to China have been the four South Korean APR-1400s, the first two of which began operating in 2021. No US nuclear projects are under construction in the non-OECD countries, although agreements have been signed with Ukraine and Romania that envision new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors. On November 22, 2021, an initial contract was signed between Westinghouse and Energoatom for the provision of engineering and procurement of components for the first AP-1000 to be built at Khmelnitsky 4 in the Ukraine. Westinghouse also continuing to look for a way to proceed with up to six Westinghouse reactors in India that have been under discussions for many years. Earlier this year, EDF of France made an offer to build six reactors in India.
Within the non-OECD group of countries, CO2 emissions are highly concentrated. The top ten emitters* accounted for 78 percent of non-OECD energy-related carbon emissions and 52 percent of global emissions in 2020. The average annual electricity growth in these top ten countries has been around 4 percent for the 2009-19 period, but China, India, Indonesia, have experienced growth of 6 percent or more. Seven of the ten have operating nuclear power plants (see chart below) but only in Russia and South Africa does nuclear provide more than 5 percent of total electricity generation. Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Kazakhstan do not have commercial nuclear plants.
*China, India, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, S. Africa, Brazil, UAE, and Kazakhstan.
Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021
Of the ten, China, Russia, India, and the UAE are moving ahead with new nuclear plants. China will continue to dominate global new builds and its new five-year plan has increased its nuclear target to 70GW from the current installed capacity of 47.5GW with 18GW under construction. Russia has new VVER 1200 units under construction at Kursk II and is planning four new reactors at Leningrad II as well as Smolensk. India has scaled back its nuclear ambitions in favor of renewables but has seven reactors under construction including Russian-supported units at Kudankulam. The UAE is completing the last two of its four units at the Barakah complex with S. Korean financing. When operational, these units will reduce the UAE’s GHG emissions by 25 percent.
Plans of others in this group are less certain. Although construction of Bushehr 2 is resumed with Russian help in Iran, progress has been erratic and plans for a third unit are uncertain. Brazil has announced plans to complete the long-delayed Angra 3 plant started years ago with AREVA of France but has not yet arranged financing. South Africa and recently Kazakhstan have indicated they are considering future nuclear projects. Saudi Arabia’s plans for a nuclear tender for its two first units have been delayed and they now seem to be targeting 2040 for the first units. And, although it has nuclear energy cooperation agreements with several countries, Indonesia’s official energy investment plans have not included provision for nuclear power.
The IEA’s WEO21 Announced Pledges Scenario (APS) posits an increase in nuclear power in all developing regions and a three-fold increase by 2050, mainly in China and India. But this expansion would still only raise the percent of nuclear in the non-OECD countries by about 2 percent.
IPCC, IEA, and other studies have stressed the importance of progress on emissions mitigation this decade to slow emissions growth and reach a point in 2030 from which a net zero 2050 target can realistically be achieved. The pre-COP26 UNEP emissions gap report estimated that new Glasgow pledges for 2030 would reduce projected 2030 emissions by only 7.5 percent compared with the 30 percent reduction needed to keep temperature increases to 2 degrees C. But a study by the University of Melbourne indicates that pledges at COP26 , especially from India, have the potential to keep the world within the 2 degrees C level. Although the emerging and developing countries are critical in this regard given their growth rates and high fossil fuel dependence, it does not appear that nuclear power, outside of China, India, Russia, and UAE, will make much of a contribution by 2030 in the major non-OECD emitters given the status of plans and the long-lead times involved in completing nuclear units. Even in China and India, nuclear power’s role in reducing coal generation will be modest but useful in complementing their major push to expand renewable energy.
But after 2030, new nuclear technologies, e.g., Small Modular Reactors of less than 300MW), that can be built more quickly at lower upfront capital costs and could, if successfully demonstrated by late this decade, represent an option for emerging and developing countries to meet baseload and system reliability requirements, substitute for coal and gas (LNG), and complement the major anticipated investments in intermittent solar and wind. Many emerging and developing countries are expressing interest in SMRs. SMR developers in North America, Europe and Asia are already pursuing markets in key countries. At COP26 in November NuScale, which is committed to build an SMR at the Idaho National Laboratory in the United States, and Nuclearelectrica of Romania announced plans for a partnership to build a six-module SMR in Romania, an EU but not OECD country, by 2028.
Adoption and commercialization of new technologies in OECD countries will be critical to establishing a credible platform for exports. Plans are moving ahead for commercial demonstrations of SMRs in the United States, Canada, and the UK, often in cooperation with Japanese or South Korean companies. But China and Russia are also working on smaller, advanced systems. Although there will still be interest in large nuclear plants, a major competition is shaping up between the Western and Chinese/Russian companies and their government finance agencies for SMR export markets. These technologies are coming by the end of the decade and this fact puts a premium on action to establish the necessary international regulatory, safety and safeguards frameworks. The West needs to lead in this process since the new less expensive technologies will mean that many more countries, including in the emerging and developing countries, may see nuclear as a viable, zero-carbon option.