New Report Says Increase in Nuclear Power Is Key to Reaching Emissions Goals

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The International Energy Agency released a report last Thursday stating that nuclear power generation will have to more than double worldwide in the next 35 years in order to meet international goals for mitigating global warming.

As Scientific American explained in a Jan. 30 article, “To accomplish the needed CO2 emissions cuts to keep warming no greater than 2 degrees C[elsius] … nuclear power generation capacity needs to increase to 930 gigawatts from 396 gigawatts by 2050.” SA also noted that these findings are consistent with those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last year.

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement that nuclear energy is the “second-largest source of low-carbon electricity worldwide,” and that all available options must be leveraged to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Complex Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power
There is much disagreement on whether nuclear power has a net positive or negative impact on the environment.

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident, in particular, had a profoundly negative impact on public opinion regarding the safety of nuclear power plants. But nuclear power does provide a low-carbon option that could take coal-fired plants offline and reduce consumption of fossil fuels.

The IEA said in its report that such accidents could be avoided, with proper regulation and the development of new safety technology. Most power plants, especially those in the U.S., are currently over 30 years old.

Nuclear Power and Energy Costs
Energy policy debate has as much to do with power costs as it does with environmental policy, and often the two are weighed against each other. The most notable example for New York in recent months is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s planned ban on high-volume hydrofracking in the state.

Nuclear power isn’t exempt from this debate, though environmentalists are split on whether nuclear power plants are part of the problem or part of the solution. Exelon’s Ginna plant, located near Rochester, NY, is up against a deadline from its biggest buyer, Rochester Gas and Electric. But the company says it will have to nearly double its prices to keep the plant from closing.

Energy deregulation has a part to play, as well. This principle, which applies free-market thinking to energy sales, allows consumers to choose their power providers in an effort to keep costs down. Those who favor deregulation in the U.S. say the fact that rates in deregulated markets have fallen more than those in regulated markets since 2008 proves the principle works.

But nuclear power is struggling to compete in deregulated markets, in some cases calling on the help of state governments to stay afloat. It remains to be seen if the latest predictions regarding nuclear energy’s role in global warming will make those pleas more effective.