Security and climate change drive a return to nuclear energy as over 30 nations sign summit pledge

Secretary General of the IAEA Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during arrivals for a Nuclear Energy Summit at the Expo in Brussels, Thursday, March 21, 2024. Leaders of European Union countries and other organizations meet for a one day summit on Thursday with the aim of highlighting the role of nuclear energy, reducing the use of fossil fuels, enhancing energy security and boosting economic development. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Secretary General of the IAEA Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during arrivals for a Nuclear Energy Summit at the Expo in Brussels, Thursday, March 21, 2024. Leaders of European Union countries and other organizations meet for a one day summit on Thursday with the aim of highlighting the role of nuclear energy, reducing the use of fossil fuels, enhancing energy security and boosting economic development. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS (AP) — In the shadow of a massive monument glorifying nuclear power, over 30 nations from around the world pledged to use the controversial energy source to help achieve a climate-neutral globe while providing countries with an added sense of strategic security.

The idea of a Nuclear Energy Summit would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, but the tide has turned in recent years. A warming planet has made it necessary to phase out fossil fuels, while the war in Ukraine has laid bare Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.

“We have to do everything possible to facilitate the contribution of nuclear energy,” said Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “It is clear: Nuclear is there. It has an important role to play,” he said.

In a solemn pledge, 34 nations, including the United States, China, France, Britain and Saudi Arabia, committed “to work to fully unlock the potential of nuclear energy by taking measures such as enabling conditions to support and competitively finance the lifetime extension of existing nuclear reactors, the construction of new nuclear power plants and the early deployment of advanced reactors.”

“We commit to support all countries, especially emerging nuclear ones, in their capacities and efforts to add nuclear energy to their energy mixes,” the statement said.

The one-day meeting was held in Brussels next to the 1958 Atomium, the 102-meter (335-foot) -tall construction of the nine iron atoms, which sought to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the wake of the nuclear bomb explosions at the end of World War II and their use as a geopolitical deterrent ever since.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, tried to reinvigorate that peaceful mission.

“Without the support of nuclear power, we have no chance to reach our climate targets on time. Renewables will play the major role in terms of electricity, especially solar supported by wind and hydropower,” Birol said. “But we also need nuclear power, especially in those countries where we don’t have major renewable potential.”

“We have to do whatever we can to increase the current nuclear capacity, which is currently only less than 10% of global electricity generation,” he said.

In Europe, France is the leader in nuclear energy and accounts for about two-thirds of its overall provisions.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that “thanks to the nuclear model, France is one of the few countries that exports its electricity, which is an opportunity.”

“We should be much more concerned about, for example, CO2 emissions, which have a direct impact on you and me and on our health every day,” he said. “Our priority must be to get out of coal and gas and move towards nuclear power and renewable energy.”

The devastating impact of a nuclear accident, like the one in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, was barely a talking point. Outside the meeting, environmental groups sought to highlight the dangers of the technology and convince leaders that renewable energy sources like wind and solar were much more practical and worthwhile.

Building nuclear plants takes many years and projects are often marred by cost and deadline overruns, and environmentalists stressed that point with demonstrations outside the summit center.

“Nuclear, all the evidence shows, is too slow to build. It’s too expensive. Much more expensive than renewables,” said Lorelei Limousin of Greenpeace. “The government must focus on developing renewable energy, energy savings, the real solutions that work for people like home insulation, public transport — not nuclear energy fairy tales.”

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Associated Press journalists Aleksandar Furtula and Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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