Nuclear energy and renewable energy are the principal competitors for low-carbon electricity in many countries. Whether you’re a proponent of nuclear power or not, one thing is clear: greenhouse gas emissions will increase if nuclear plants close. Why? Because shuttered nuclear reactors will be replaced by natural gas-based generation, not with solar and wind capacity.

Nuclear power provides cheap, reliable electricity, but has proven difficult to finance and construct, especially in deregulated markets. How can we adopt a systemic approach and make sure all our promising zero-carbon power technologies fit together effectively?

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), clear and consistent policy support is needed if nuclear power is to significantly expand its contribution to the global transition to clean energy sources. Policies are required to address uncertainties in investing in new nuclear power plants and to avoid the premature closure of existing reactors.

In a 2° C scenario analyzed by IEA, the global power sector can reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2060. This would require a scaled up deployment of various technologies, including 74 percent of generation from renewables (including two percent of sustainable bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, 15 percent from nuclear, seven percent from fossil fueled power plants with carbon capture and storage, and the remainder from natural gas-fired generation).

A position paper issued by Foratom, the European nuclear trade body on the European Commission's 'Clean Energy for All Europeans' package of measures for a clean energy transition also supports keeping nuclear in the energy mix. The organization says the EU's aim to decarbonize the economy by more than 80 percent by 2050 cannot be achieved without nuclear power.

The World Nuclear Association has developed its own vision for the future of electricity. The Harmony Programme envisages a diverse mix of low-carbon generating technologies deployed to maximize the benefits of each while the negative impacts are minimized. The association's target for nuclear energy is to provide 25 percent of electricity in 2050, requiring roughly 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity to be constructed.

The IEA contends that regardless of the pathway chosen, policies to support energy technology innovation at all stages, from research to full deployment, will be critical to reap energy security, environmental and economic benefits of energy system transformations. The most important challenge for energy policy makers will be to move away from a siloed perspective toward one that enables systems integration.