Global nuclear generation capacity expected to double by 2050 in IAEA’s high case scenario

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Global nuclear power generation capacity will double to 792 gigawatts (GW) by 2050 from the 393 GW available in 2020, according to the latest projections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As per the IAEA’s high case scenario the UN nuclear watchdog has revised upwards its projection made last year of 715 GW by 2050 by more than 10 percent. 

The 41st edition of the IAEA report “Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050”, unveiled last month, presents its projections for nuclear power generating capacity in terms of low and high estimates.  IAEA says the high case projections are “much more ambitious but are still plausible and technically feasible.”  

“For the first time since the Fukushima Daiichi (Japan) accident a decade ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency has revised up its projections of the potential growth of nuclear power capacity for electricity generation during the coming decades”, an IAEA statement said.  

“The change in the IAEA’s annual outlook for this low-carbon energy source does not yet mark a new trend, but it comes as the world aims to move away from fossil fuels to fight climate change. Many countries are considering the introduction of nuclear power to boost reliable and clean energy production”, it added. 

According to the IAEA “the realization of the IAEA’s high case scenario would require significant actions, including an accelerated implementation of innovative nuclear technologies. The low case projections indicate that world nuclear capacity by 2050 would remain essentially the same as now, at 392 GW.” 

World energy consumption is projected to increase by around 15 percent from current levels by 2030 and by about 30 percent by 2050. Electricity consumption is expected to grow at a rate of around 2.4 percent per annum, doubling between 2020 and 2050. Total electrical generating capacity is estimated to rise by about 30 percent by 2030 and to more than double by 2050. 

“The new IAEA projections show that nuclear power will continue to play an indispensable role in low carbon energy production. The report’s findings represent an encouraging sign of increasing awareness that nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide during operation, is absolutely vital in our efforts to achieve net zero emissions”, said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. 

In the high case scenario, global nuclear capacity increases by about 20 percent by 2030 and more than double by 2050, compared with the 2020 capacity. Under the low case, nuclear generating capacity will decline by approximately 7 percent until 2030 and then recover by 2050 to about the same as the current level at 392 GW.  In both scenarios, however, the share of nuclear electricity in total generating capacity is expected to decrease by 2050. 

According to the IAEA’s high case projection, nuclear energy could contribute about 12 percent of global electricity by 2050, up from 11 percent in last year’s 2050 high case projections. Nuclear power generated around 10 percent of the world’s electricity in 2020.  

“The low case scenario was unchanged with a projected share of 6 percent for nuclear in the total electricity generation. Coal remains the dominant energy source for electricity production at about 37 percent for 2020, changing little since 1980”, the IAEA said 

The report says that ageing management programmes and long-term operation are being implemented for an increasing number of reactors. About two-thirds of nuclear power reactors have been in operation for over 30 years. It emphasised that despite the operation of several nuclear power plants (NPPs) having been extended to 60 and even 80 years, significant new nuclear capacity to offset retirements is needed in the long term. Many new power plants will be needed to maintain nuclear power’s current role in the energy mix, while uncertainty remains regarding the replacement of these reactors, particularly in Europe and North America. 

“New low-carbon technologies such as nuclear hydrogen production or small and advanced reactors will be crucial to achieving net zero. Nuclear power could provide solutions for electricity consumption growth, air quality concerns, and the security of energy supply. Many innovations for the expanded use of nuclear techniques in related areas such as heat or hydrogen production are underway”, the Agency said. 

The report also said the change in its annual outlook for nuclear “does not yet mark a new trend, but it comes as the world aims to move away from fossil fuels to fight climate change. Commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement could support nuclear power development if the necessary energy policies and market designs facilitate investments in dispatchable, low-carbon technologies.” 

At an interview post the release of the report, IAEA Director General said that though some countries are moving away from nuclear power, others such as France and Sweden have decarbonised almost all their electricity thanks to nuclear power, along with hydropower.  

“Nuclear is part of the solution, it’s not the panacea, of course, but it’s an important part of the solution because, especially in big economies, it has a very important footprint in terms of energy”, Grossi said. 

Around the world, 50 reactors are under construction and about 30 countries are embarking on or considering introducing nuclear power. Based on their current national plans, 10 to 12 newcomers to nuclear power are expected by 2035.  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that it would not be possible to reach the climate goals set out by the United Nations without nuclear energy.

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