IAEA International Ministerial Conference to focus on nuclear power for clean energy transition 

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The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) next International Ministerial Conference will focus on how nuclear power can help reduce reliance on fossil fuels, ensure energy security and contribute to the clean energy transition, the Vienna-based IAEA announced earlier this month.  

The IAEA’s International Ministerial Conference will have the theme of “Nuclear Power in the 21st Century” and is to be held in the US capital Washington during October 26-28, 2022. The conference comes at a time of soaring energy prices and a deepening climate crisis that is driving many countries to consider adopting nuclear power as a way to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.   

“World leaders are worried about shortages of oil and natural gas, and high energy prices undermining their economies and political stability”, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement. 

“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 decarbonise key sectors of the global economy. That’s why the discussions at the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power are so timely”, he added.  

According to the IAEA’s projections for the potential growth of nuclear power in the coming decades, global nuclear generating capacity will double to 792 gigawatts (GW) by 2050. This is as per the agency’s high case scenario, and for which to happen, significant actions are needed including an accelerated implementation of innovative nuclear technologies, IAEA says. The low case IAEA projections indicate that nuclear capacity by 2050 will remain essentially the same as now, at around 392 GW. 

An IAEA statement said that the conference’s opening panel discussion titled “Fulfilling the Promise: Achieving Net Zero with Low Carbon Nuclear”, Grossi will lead discussions with International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) arm Nuclear Energy Agency Director General William Magwood and World Nuclear Association (WNA) Director General Sama Bilbao y Leon. Among other topics, they will discuss how international organisations 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. 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, the statement added. 

Nuclear power is currently the second largest low carbon source of electricity after hydro power and provides 10 percent of the world’s electricity. The use of nuclear power has avoided the release of about 70 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide CO2 into the atmosphere over the past 50 years and continues to avoid more than 1 Gt of CO2 emissions every year, the IAEA said.   

According to the IEA, to achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050, nuclear power generating capacity will need to more than double, and with the worsening of the energy and climate crises, the debate around nuclear power is shifting. 

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told the IAEA in an interview earlier this year that “many countries that had taken nuclear out of their energy options are giving it a second thought” because 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. 

“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. 

The current context of the global energy crisis, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, energy security challenges and ambitious climate commitments, gives nuclear power a unique opportunity to stage a comeback, Birol said last month following the release of the IEA report “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. 

“However, a new era for nuclear power is by no means guaranteed. It will depend on governments putting in place robust policies to ensure safe and sustainable operation of nuclear plants for years to come — and to mobilise the necessary investments, including in new technologies”, Birol said.  

“The nuclear industry must quickly address the issues of cost overruns and project delays that have bedevilled the construction of new plants in advanced economies”, he added.  

The IAEA said that while electricity generation is responsible for close to 40 percent of CO2 emissions from the energy sector globally, around 60 percent share of CO2 is emitted by fossil fuels used in industry, transportation and to heat buildings. Nuclear power has a proven potential to decarbonise some of these non-electric sectors as well. It can decarbonise low temperature heat production as seen in the examples of several district heating schemes, 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, the IAEA statement added.  

Previous editions of the IAEA Ministerial Conference were held in Abu Dhabi (2017), St. Petersburg (2013), Beijing (2009) and Paris (2005).