Amid soaring energy prices and a deepening climate crisis, many countries are considering how nuclear power can help reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, ensure energy security and contribute to the clean energy transition.
These topics will be central to discussions at the IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century, to be held in Washington, in the United States, from 26 to 28 October 2022.
Nuclear power, the second largest low carbon source of electricity after hydro power, provides 10 percent of the world's electricity. Its use has avoided the release of about 70 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere over the past 50 years and continues to avoid more than 1Gt of CO2 emissions every year. But to achieve net zero by 2050, nuclear power generating capacity will need to more than double, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
'World leaders are worried about shortages of oil and natural gas, and high energy prices, undermining their economies and political stability,' said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. 'Nuclear energy can point the way out of this crisis by providing low carbon and secure supplies not only of electricity, but also of industrial heat and hydrogen to help decarbonize key sectors of the global economy. That's why the discussions at the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power are so timely.'
In the opening panel Fulfilling the Promise: Achieving Net Zero with Low Carbon Nuclear, Mr Grossi will lead discussions with IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol; William Magwood, Director General of OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and Sama Bilbao y Leon, Director General of the World Nuclear Association. Among other topics, they will discuss how international organizations can cooperate to promote an expanded role for nuclear power in the clean energy transition. The conference will also feature four other panel discussions plus four InFocus side events, including one in which Mr Grossi and US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm will discuss gender balance in the nuclear field and another on youth reimagining nuclear power's future that will feature a selected finalist of the Generation Atomic Art Contest.
According to the high case scenario in the IAEA's projections for the potential growth of nuclear power in the coming decades, global nuclear generating capacity will double to 792 gigawatts (net electrical) by 2050. But for that to happen, significant actions are needed including an accelerated implementation of innovative nuclear technologies. The low case IAEA projections indicate that nuclear capacity by 2050 will remain essentially the same as now, at around 392 GW(e).
As the energy and climate crises rage on, the debate around nuclear power is shifting.
'Many countries that had taken nuclear out of their energy options are giving it a second thought' Birol told the IAEA in an interview last May. They understand that nuclear power 'can provide support for electricity security and energy security' in addition to being 'one of the options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which can help countries reach the targets they have announced,' he said.
'If, on the other hand, the very justified energy security worries of many countries are met by increased burning of coal, then climate change goals will be out of reach,' Birol added.
In advanced economies, a nuclear power comeback will require policies that kick-start investment while industry has to reduce costs and construction times, Birol said on 30 June after the release of the IEA's report on Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transition, which found that building the sustainable and clean energy systems of the future will be harder, riskier and more expensive without the inclusion of nuclear power.
While electricity generation is responsible for close to 40% of CO2 emissions from the energy sector globally, the much larger share-60% or so-is emitted by fossils fuels used in industry, transportation and to heat buildings. Nuclear power has a proven potential to decarbonize some of these non-electric sectors as well. It can decarbonize low temperature heat production-several examples of district heating schemes have been in operation for decades - and innovative reactors under development will be able to provide the high temperatures needed for industrial processes such as steel and cement manufacturing, as well as hydrogen production.
As governments seek to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, several are working to reassure communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry, and coal in particular, that they still have a place in the transitions to a low carbon economy, according to speakers at a recent IAEA webinar. One way may be to repurpose coal power plants by installing small modular reactors (SMRs) on or near retiring power stations. This may help not only to capitalize on existing systems and infrastructure, but also provide job continuity or even improve employment prospects for communities.
The net zero conversation in Washington will be the first of five panel discussions featured at the IAEA Ministerial Conference, which is hosted by the US Department of Energy and organized in partnership with the IEA and in cooperation with OECD/NEA. The other panels will focus on the enabling conditions for the wider deployment of nuclear energy, extending and expanding the clean energy contribution of existing reactors, early deployment of advanced reactor and waste management technologies, and regulatory oversight for the future of nuclear energy.
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