PARIS (Reuters) - The decline of nuclear in the global energy mix poses a threat to economies and efforts to reduce carbon emissions, International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol said on Wednesday.
Safety concerns, soaring costs and technological setbacks have slowed nuclear projects since the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan in March 2011.
At the same time, despite governments setting ambitious targets to cut green house gas emissions responsible for global warming, emissions hit a record high in 2018.
"This is a result of government failure," Birol told an electricity conference in Paris.
"There is a growing disconnect between government targets and what is happening in real life, a very dangerous disconnect," said the boss of the IEA, which advises industrialised countries on energy issues.
"I’m worried about the decline of nuclear in the energy mix if governments don’t change their policies," Birol said referring to new capacity and lifespan extensions.
Birol said nuclear's contribution to Europe's energy mix could plunge to just 4% within two decades from 25% currently with huge consequences for both emissions and economies.
At the same time, the share of polluting fossil fuels in the global energy mix remains at about 63%, the same level as in the 1990s, Birol said.
Renewables also pose a threat to nuclear energy as costs fall and capacity rises, according to the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report published in September.
Faced with increasing protests and calls for action to tackle global warming, Birol said nuclear had a role to play in a power sector responsible for 40% of overall emissions.
"Governments need to keep the existing nuclear power plants. It is the cheapest solution. It would be a big waste and a pity if we don’t keep them," he said.
Japan went without nuclear power for almost two years following Fukushima, Germany has since pledged to exit nuclear altogether by 2022 and even France, the world's second largest nuclear user, plans to reduce its reliance.
France, which depends on nuclear power for more than 75% of its electricity, aims to cut that to 50% by 2035 while boosting renewables.
In the United States, the world's largest nuclear market, operator Tennessee Valley Authority plans to extend the lifespan of its existing nuclear fleet by 20 years and develop new nuclear capacity, CEO Jeff Lyash told the electricity conference in Paris.
(Reporting by Bate Felix; editing by Jason Neely)