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Nuclear ‘arrives too late’ to halt climate emergency

  • Francesco La Camera interview
  • Plants take 7.5 years to build
  • Emissions must plummet by 2030

Nuclear energy will not help the world meet its urgent target to limit global warming, according to the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency. 

Francesco La Camera, director-general of Abu Dhabi-based Irena, told AGBI the significance of nuclear power in fighting climate change had been overstated.

“Nuclear does not serve the climate change agenda because it arrives too late,” he said.

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The average time it takes to build a nuclear power plant is 7.5 years – and that’s before it is connected to the grid, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. This compares to around 12-18 months for solar plants.   

But a UN report in September warned that the world needs to accelerate action to curb emissions before the end of this decade.

At Cop28, leaders from 21 countries pledged to treble global nuclear capacity by 2050, to advance the transition towards net zero. 

However, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has highlighted nuclear power’s long lead times, high upfront costs and “often poor record of on-time delivery”, which mean it struggles to compete with other sources of emissions-free power.

“I’m not saying nuclear won’t be a part of the future energy system, but we’re trying to tackle a climate emergency,” La Camera said.

“If you start adopting nuclear now you won’t get results until 2035, which won’t help us do what’s needed. There’s confusion over the role it can play.”

La Camera added that International Atomic Energy Agency figures show the global installed capacity of nuclear power was 374 gigawatts (GW) in 2022.

The same amount of renewables capacity was installed between 2021 and 2022 alone, according to Statista, and the IEA expects this to grow by a further 75 percent by 2027.

Nuclear fusion has also been debated at Cop28. John Kerry, the US special envoy on climate, unveiled a roadmap for international collaboration on the technology in Dubai.

Fusion reactions can generate far more energy than the fission reactions used in nuclear plants, without any harmful byproducts. However, scientists are still in the very early stages of harnessing this technology.  

Nuclear power plants take more than seven years to build compared to 12-18 months for solar plantsPexels/Joana Hahn
Nuclear power plants take more than seven years to build compared to 12-18 months for solar plants
Solar has star potential 

La Camera’s comments came as Irena published its latest annual report on GCC renewables, arguing that the region must play a “larger role domestically and internationally” in achieving the global target to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. 

GCC countries have built all their renewable energy capacity in the past decade, mainly comprising solar power. Solar capacity in the region has swelled from 191 megawatts (MW) in 2013 to more than 5,660MW in 2022, the report said. 

Despite this increase, as well as regional net zero commitments and the increased cost competitiveness of solar energy globally, renewables accounted for a “negligible” share – just 3 percent – of the Gulf’s energy capacity in 2022, it added. 

The Gulf has significant renewables potential – especially for solar power because of its abundant sunshine – and must make more of the opportunities it has. Wind power potential is smaller, “but still promising”. 

In the Gulf, solar PV costs less than 2 cents/kWh, making it the cheapest option for power production – “easily outpacing” the local cost of producing natural gas, liquefied natural gas, oil, coal and nuclear, Irena said.

A total of 118 governments this week pledged to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity to 11,000GW by 2030, as called for by Irena and the Cop28 presidency.

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