Potential in nuclear, but obstacles abound
It will be difficult to make the energy transition without nuclear energy as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels that already avoids 1.5 gigatonnes of global emissions and 180 billion cubic metres of global gas demand per year.
One key obstacle to nuclear energy is geopolitics. Russia dominates the nuclear fuel cycle value chain, providing 35% of enriched uranium – necessary for use in nuclear reactors – globally. However, Russia is no longer regarded as a reliable supplier of energy, owing to the Russian-Ukraine war and Russia’s weaponising of natural gas.
The uptake of nuclear energy also faces social, cultural, and operational challenges. Germany abruptly decided in 2011, immediately after the Fukushima disaster, to shut down its nuclear power industry, which at the time provided 25% of the country’s electricity. That is now widely seen as a major mistake, undermining Germany’s energy security and leaving its economy highly vulnerable with the Ukraine war and the cut-off of Russian gas exports to Europe. While the energy crisis has prompted a delay in the mothballing of Germany’s last three nuclear power plants, it is unlikely that the phase-out policy will be reversed.
Meanwhile, ageing nuclear reactors in France and delayed maintenance owing to Covid-19 have put part of France’s nuclear fleet out of operation, although remediation is proceeding and reactors are coming back into operation. With its long-term focus on energy security, Japan currently has seven operational nuclear power plants and the government is seeking to restart a number of other plants.
Despite such challenges, there is a growing view that nuclear energy must play a critical part in the energy transition.
Ultimately, amidst the current energy and geopolitical crisis, it’s increasingly recognised that a multitude of solutions are required to accelerate the energy transition and that such a transition must go hand in hand with greater energy security worldwide.