Exclusive: U.S. pushes to ensure nuclear “is not forgotten” in COP renewables pledge

Chief Europe Correspondent
Aerial view of a nuclear power plant in France.
The Cruas nuclear power plant in France. Photo credit: Nachteule via iStock.

The United States is working behind the scenes to ensure nuclear power is not excluded from an expected global pledge to boost renewables at the upcoming climate summit in Dubai, Cipher has learned. 

It’s also pushing for language that recognizes the need to halt investments in new coal power plants. 

The European Union and the United Arab Emirates, the host of this year’s climate negotiations known as COP28, have been calling on countries in recent months to agree in Dubai on global goals to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030. 

The move — a side governmental initiative in parallel with official climate negotiations steered by the United Nations — is a significant diplomatic push and the resulting pledge is one of the main expected deliverables at the summit.  

Support for the renewables pledge has been growing in the run-up to COP28, which will kick off on November 30. At their meeting in September, the world’s wealthiest countries, known as the Group of 20, agreed to “pursue and encourage efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally.”   

While no change is foreseen in the headline goal, the U.S. is pushing for additional language (known as framing language in diplomatic speak) to accompany the main pledge that would ensure other low-emission technologies, such as nuclear power, are not overlooked. 

We want to ensure nuclear is not forgotten and is complementary to the global pledge to boost renewables and clean energy at COP28, a top U.S. official told Cipher on condition of anonymity to be able to speak candidly. 

The move is a nod to advanced nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors, which the U.S. is hoping to partly rely on to decarbonize its economy. It’s also meant to broaden countries’ options as they work to transform their power sectors to align with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

Nuclear and renewable hydropower have traditionally provided the bulk of the world’s zero-carbon electricity, but solar and wind have grown rapidly in recent years and are expected to account for the lion’s share of growth this decade. Nonetheless, experts, including at the International Energy Agency, say nuclear power will also play an important role after 2030, especially because it offers stable and constant power unlike variable wind and solar.

Industrial look. Journalists touring the facilities of nuclear energy company TerraPower.

Journalists touring the facilities of nuclear energy company TerraPower in Bellevue, Washington last year. Photo credit: Anca Gurzu.

The draft text for the pledge is currently circulating among governments, with the goal of getting countries to sign on at the summit.  

Several parties signed the cover letter accompanying the text, including the COP28 presidency, the U.S., the European Commission, the IEA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, Barbados, Chile, Kenya and Micronesia. 

Despite its important role reducing emissions, nuclear energy is a controversial topic around the world, with concern persisting about safety, radioactive waste and the risk it could be co-opted for use in weapons. In the EU specifically, several member countries hold anti-nuclear positions. 

Some of the strongest opponents are Germany (which made a historic U-turn on nuclear energy following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan), Luxembourg and Austria. Meanwhile, France (Germany’s neighbor and the largest nuclear power user in the EU) together with Romania, Slovakia and other Central and Eastern European countries are nuclear supporters. 

Beyond nuclear, the U.S. is also looking for support for additional language in the pledge that references the need to halt the construction of new coal power plants without the infrastructure to capture emissions — a message aimed at China. 

It’s like we’re all running a marathon together, but a few in the group are still adding packs of cigarettes each week,” the U.S. official said, suggesting a global renewables pledge would lose its value without acknowledging the need to stop adding new coal-powered electricity.  

China is approving new coal power projects at the equivalent of two plants every week, according to a recent analysis. 

“While it will take time to pivot away from existing coal, it’s actually easy to stop building new coal today,” the official said.