A new nuclear energy plant opened without a bang — a good thing given the level of opposition among many environmentalists. But climate hawks are defenders of the fuel source, saying the global community can’t meet its Paris goals without it.

It is irresponsible to shun nuclear energy. By 2050, the world’s population will expand by 40 percent and the energy demand will double or triple, all because 1 billion people lack access to electricity now. To boot: countries must limit emissions to avoid excessive temperatures, rising sea levels and aberrant weather.

Under this context, the world welcomes the addition to Georgia Power’s Vogtle nuclear power facility. It will ultimately have four units, two of which have been operating since the 1980s. The newborn comes in at 1,114 megawatts, enough to power a half-million homes and businesses. The baby brother will be the same size and is due between November 2023 and March 2024.

The catch is that the additions started in 2009, coming in over budget and years off the original timetable. The most recent one cost $16 billion more than expected.

But nuclear energy production needs to double by 2050 if the globe is to keep temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius or 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The fuel now provides 32 percent of the carbon-free energy use worldwide. To that end, the International Energy Agency said $1.1 trillion must get invested into the technology annually — to get to 600,000 megawatts by 2030 and 900,000 by 2050.

Many hurdles stand in the way of this. Environmentalists point to the enormous costs and note that renewable energy is much cheaper. Renewables now make up about 29 percent of the electricity pie globally.

Critics also point to the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan and the absence of a permanent resting place for the spent nuclear fuel. 

But if nuclear energy dies, natural gas usage will explode, hurting the chances that the Paris Agreement will succeed. When Southern California Edison closed its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in June 2013 — 2,200 megawatts — it led to burning more natural gas, slowing the state’s climate progress.

Meantime, California is rethinking its plans to shutter PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in 2025, which provides about 9 percent of the state’s power supply.

The utility now seeks permission to keep it operating for 20 more years. There’s a strong likelihood it will keep cranking out carbon-free power until at least 2030. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University concluded that the state’s carbon dioxide levels would drop by 10 percent annually if the plant stayed open until 2035.

“It was a shock to California’s environmental community over the last few years when it found itself significantly outnumbered by pro-nuclear activists,” said Ted Nordhaus, head of the Breakthrough Institute.

The United States has 93 nuclear power reactors in 28 states, generating nearly 96,000 megawatts. The fuel source makes up 20 percent of the nation’s electricity portfolio. Meanwhile, the plants provide 55 percent of the country’s carbon-free power. Significantly, nuclear energy can operate all day, every day — facilities with 80-year lifespans.  

And now that the U.S. government has incentivized small modular reactors, they will become more attractive for lenders and utilities. They are as small as 50 megawatts, but companies can combine the modules to form a larger plant. Moreover, they have built-in nuclear waste storage devices.

By 2030, several such plants should be operational in the United States and Europe.

“From a geopolitical standpoint, the United States government should look at exporting this technology to developing countries for electricity production,” said Richard Mroz, managing director of Resolute Strategies.

Indeed, the world will depend on the fuel source if it wants to tackle climate change.