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From potential to reality: Assessing and addressing hurdles to nuclear energy at COP28

November 29, 2023 Work Area: Advanced Nuclear

This article is part of our COP28 series. Learn more about CATF at COP28.

In the race to decarbonize the global energy system, which the world will take stock of at COP28 in Dubai, nuclear energy stands out as a potentially valuable tool in the toolkit — offering the promise of round-the-clock, zero-carbon electrical and thermal energy in a world with growing demand for both. 1 Nearly every authoritative assessment, including those from the IPCC and IEA, agrees: the lowest cost path to a zero-carbon energy system relies on a substantial amount of nuclear energy in the coming decades. 

To meet this demand in the next several decades with carbon free energy, at least a tripling of today’s global nuclear capacity will be required and that implies a substantial increase in the global annual rate of deployment. However, the expansion of nuclear energy since its last rapid deployment in the 1980s has been fraught with challenges that extend beyond the technology itself.

Several hurdles have so far hampered deployment of nuclear energy at scale: 

Deployment challenges

Nuclear today is delivered through bespoke, site-specific mega-projects lacking standardization, modularization, and manufacturability like combined cycle gas turbines. The advent of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) with modularization and factory assembly, deployed in hundreds to capture scale learning, offers many advantages and unlocks the potential to offer lower investment costs and risks and faster on-site delivery. 

Regulatory challenges

Nuclear reactor licensing is currently country-specific and needs to be repeated for each new design in a new country. Adding to the complexity, the expertise needed for design and safety assessments is thin. We need international licensing harmonization and portable technical assistance to build up capability for regulation in first-time nuclear energy countries. 

Financing challenges

Recent high-profile delays and cost overruns have made private and public financing hard to access for nuclear projects. On the global stage, International Financing Institutions (IFI’s)/Multilateral Development Banks do not currently finance nuclear energy and lack the expertise and ambition to do so. New financing mechanisms are needed. 

Exploring solutions to unlock the full potential of nuclear energy 

As the demand for low-carbon energy rises, tackling these challenges — indeed, fully reimagining the nuclear ecosystem — becomes crucial. COP28 in Dubai offers a unique platform where experts, policymakers, and stakeholders will converge to address and explore solutions to unlock the full potential of nuclear energy.  

That’s one of the key reasons CATF will be on the ground in Dubai — highlighting the importance of developing a wide range of clean energy options like nuclear energy and sharing new research and initiatives that can help accelerate its global deployment.  

CATF will launch a new flagship initiative and report that charts a new pathway for nuclear energy at COP 28 — calling out shortcomings of the current nuclear energy ecosystem, taking stock of its challenges, and laying out key regulatory and commercial solutions. Among these proposed solutions are a suite of new global institutions that together can help realize nuclear energy’s potential to meet growing global demand for zero-carbon electricity and beyond. 

This initiative, Nuclear Energy at Scale, will be featured during an event at CATF’s Zero-Carbon Future pavilion on Friday December 8, and feature remarks from: 

  • Carlos Leipner, Global Director, Advanced Nuclear Energy at Clean Air Task Force;  
  • Kathryn Huff, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy;  
  • Henri Palliere, Head Planning and Economic Studies Section, IAEA;  
  • Michel Berthelemy, Chief of Staff & Nuclear Strategic Policy Advisor, OECD NEA; and 
  • Stephen Yamoah, Executive Director, Nuclear Power Ghana  
  • Ana Birchall, Special Envoy for Strategic & International Affairs, Nuclearelectrica, Romania 

CATF, the Energy Futures Initiative Foundation (EFI) and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), will also come together at COP28 to release a newly assembled nuclear energy playbook that provides a roadmap for overcoming these hurdles in countries that do not currently have commercial nuclear energy. The playbook will outline options for — and pathways to — the responsible, sustainable and effective development of new nuclear projects and industries. It is intended to provide a guide for how to scale effectively while addressing institutional, business model, security, and human capital complexities.   

The playbook will be unveiled during an event at the International Atomic Energy Agency Pavilion on Monday, December 4, and feature remarks from  

  • Ernest J. Moniz, Founder & CEO of Energy Futures Initiative; and 
  • Armond Cohen, Executive Director of CATF 

For more on these events and other CATF programming at COP28, visit CATF’s COP28 Zero-Carbon Future page.

1 The International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook estimates electricity demand will increase by 150%, from 28,000 TWh in 2021 to 73,000 TWh in 2050 under the net zero scenario. This includes extremely conservative estimates of population growth and continued limits to energy access in developing countries. IEA, World Energy Outlook 2022, at 44 (2022), 

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