SOMETHING big happened at the COP28 summit in the United Arab Emirates.

For the first time in history, almost 200 countries acknowledged that we need to shift away from fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change.

What this COP achieved may not be enough to properly limit global warming but it was nonetheless nothing short of groundbreaking. What it means is a global economic detox, slowly but surely breaking up with fossil fuels. The 20-page long document will leave its mark, especially on the climate. It also has a dedicated chapter on energy, the sector responsible for two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions.

The goals endorsed at the summit align with what the International Energy Agency has been pushing for months – a threefold increase in global renewable energy production capacities and doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030.

But everyone in the room knows the elephant in the climate chamber – this ambitious plan is just wishful thinking if fossil energy consumption doesn’t budge. The text demands an acceleration in the decarbonisation of entire energy systems, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050.

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This isn’t your typical resolution. It foresees a gradual farewell to coal, oil, and gas. While it recognises each state’s sovereignty in decarbonising at its own pace, using its own methods and solutions, it is still a significant leap in the right direction.

The document lists clean technologies to decarbonise the power sector, including renewables, carbon capture and storage, “low-carbon” hydrogen, and notably, nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy took centre stage at the COP. On December 2, France, along with 21 other nations, pledged to triple global nuclear energy capacity by 2050. They say this commitment recognises the pivotal role of nuclear energy in achieving global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. They want this pledge to be a call “to work together to advance a global aspirational goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity from 2020 by 2050”.

The global energy chessboard is in play, with pieces moving with unprecedented momentum. Shifting away from fossil fuels, which still make up two-thirds of annual energy consumption, requires a massive surge in alternative electricity production. Nuclear power emerges as a low-carbon and continuous electricity source, standing tall alongside solar and wind energy.

The National: France's aging nuclear infrastructure shows the need for truly sustainable energy solutionsFrance's aging nuclear infrastructure shows the need for truly sustainable energy solutions

Even among progressive circles, there is a growing sentiment to prioritise securing enough

low-carbon electricity using all available means – nuclear and renewables alike. The grand exit from nuclear power, once a fervent demand, now seems contingent on ensuring a seamless transition – because time is running out.

In that sense, it is understandable that some see renewable energy as the reassuring, reliable, stable choice. After all, we have been using it for decades.

What is interesting, though, is that the allure of nuclear energy is losing its sheen, according to several independent experts contributing to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), a comprehensive annual assessment of the global nuclear energy landscape since 2007. The report signals a shifting perception of nuclear power, raising questions about its continued dominance in the evolving energy debate.

In France, where I am from, nuclear energy holds a significant position in our democratic debate, with a rich historical legacy that extends beyond mere technological considerations. It symbolises themes of self-reliance and sovereignty.

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The rapid rise of nuclear power to become the main source of electricity in France highlights a fundamental truth –it is a matter of political will. France’s journey into nuclear energy began with a strategic decision in the 1950s, culminating in the opening of the first nuclear site at Marcoule in 1956.

This marked not just the initiation of nuclear power but the commencement of a steadfast commitment to its expansion. The motivation extended beyond technology, driven by a fusion of factors – ensuring energy security, maintaining a consistent domestic energy supply and reducing dependence on foreign fossil fuels.

With remarkable speed,

France developed a network of 18 nuclear sites across the nation, establishing itself as a global leader in nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy still holds the top spot in France’s energy mix. It provides 63% of French electricity. However, the output of the nuclear sector is at its lowest since 1988, experiencing a staggering 30% drop compared to the 20-year average.

The National: World leaders gathered to discuss the future of energy at COP28World leaders gathered to discuss the future of energy at COP28 (Image: PR Newswire)

This decline is particularly evident during the summer, when nuclear plants rely on sufficient river flow to operate. It is a form of energy that is adversely affected by climate change, much like hydropower, which is at its lowest since the extreme temperatures of 1976 due to unprecedented drought.

Recurring problems in nuclear plants also recently caused interruptions in production, making it, ironically, an intermittent source of energy as well.

This trend is, however, not unique to France. The nuclear energy report highlights a significant 4% global decline in nuclear power generation, reaching levels not seen since the mid-1990s. Outside of China, this decline deepened to 5%, bringing the global nuclear energy share in 2022 down to 9.2%.

This marks the most substantial drop since the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2012, now standing at just over half of its peak in 1996 at 17.5%.

Long story short, nuclear power is facing financial challenges. According to models by various organisations, it becomes the most expensive way to generate electricity when discount rates go beyond 5.4%.

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This cost issue is reflected in major nuclear-producing countries. In the US, there are huge subsidies, exceeding $15 billion by 2030. In the UK, the estimated cost for the Hinkley Point C reactors has gone up to a whopping $44bn (£34.98bn), and the connection to the power grid has been delayed until June 2027.

Meanwhile, in the EU, solar and wind plants have outpaced nuclear energy, natural gas, and coal generation, producing 624 TWh and accounting for over 38% of the EU’s electricity production.

What we are seeing today is most countries now investing up to 15 times more in renewables than in nuclear. The cost of wind turbines and solar panels has consistently decreased.

In contrast, the nuclear industry has seen a history of exceeding deadlines and budgets, raising eyebrows at a technology that becomes increasingly expensive over time …

Most of the 400 reactors around the world are about three decades old, getting close to their usual lifespan of 40 years (although some can get extensions for up to 20 more years).

Many experts expect a lot of these reactors to shut down in the next few years as they reach the end of their operational lives, but the costs and management of decommissioning are seldom considered in nuclear projects.

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These challenges are garnering more attention from the public and governments, making people think more carefully about the role of nuclear energy in the world’s energy picture and future.

So, what to make of nuclear energy? It undeniably played a crucial role in securing France’s energy independence in the past, but is it truly a long-term, future-proof energy source? I struggle to think it is.

The future lies in an energy mix, drawing from a multitude of sources, such as hydrogen, hydropower, wind, solar and many more. It is feasible, and we have the technologies and knowledge to make it happen.

On top of that, addressing the question of energy sobriety is essential. How can we be more efficient with

the energy we use? Sobriety demands both individual and collective willpower and, unquestionably, it is also a matter of social justice.

It is impossible to ask everyone to be more mindful of their energy use when the wealthiest among us are still creating huge amounts of carbon emissions.

We have no other choice but to embrace a diversified energy transition, where sobriety and efficiency is accompanied by considerations of social and environmental justice. No one feature is going to be a silver bullet.