The relative costs and benefits of nuclear energy have been the subject of heated debate in recent years thanks to a combination of factors, including the need to cut carbon emissions and the 2011 accident at Fukushima, Japan. Critics argue that nuclear is not only dangerous but also unnecessary for tackling climate change; supporters claim the risks are small and that abandoning nuclear would make an already huge challenge even harder and more expensive.
One thing that's clear is that decarbonising electric power will be critical for solving climate change. Even assuming big gains in efficiency, the world will need about twice as much electricity in 2050 as it does today. The problem is that, as of today, most of the world's electricity comes from coal (40%) and gas (20%), with hydroelectric (16%) and nuclear (13%) by far the largest low-carbon sources. In Europe most of the new generating capacity being added today is low-carbon wind. In China, the world's largest energy consumer, most of the new capacity is coal, although it is also the world's largest investor in both wind and nuclear.Worldwide, the majority of new capacity is still coal or gas.
This situation needs to be turned around radically and urgently if we are to meet the objective that world leaders set in Copenhagen in 2009 of limiting the average increase in global temperatures to 2C. By then, the great majority of the world's energy will need to come from low-carbon sources. In developed countries, such as the UK, virtually all of it. 2050 may seem a long way away until you remember that a new coal ornuclear power station being planned today will probably still be operating then.