Nuclear power can play major role in achieving net zero emissions by 2050: IEA

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Amidst the current global energy crisis, nuclear power has the potential to play a significant role in helping countries to securely transition to energy systems dominated by renewables, according to a new special report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) released late last month. 

Moreover, the climate crisis and the globally agreed targets of reaching net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 require a rapid and complete decarbonisation of electricity generation and heat production.  

The report says that nuclear energy, with its 413 gigawatts (GW) of capacity operating in 32 countries, contributes to both goals by avoiding 1.5 gigatonnes (Gt) of global emissions and 180 billion cubic metres (bcm) of global gas demand per year. 
 

The IEA report titled “Nuclear power and secure energy transitions: From today’s challenges to tomorrow’s clean energy systems” says countries that choose to continue or increase their use of nuclear power can reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, cut carbon dioxide emissions and enable electricity systems to integrate higher shares of solar and wind power. 

“While wind and solar PV are expected to lead the push to replace fossil fuels, they need to be complemented by dispatchable resources. As today’s second largest source of low emissions power after hydropower, and with its dispatchability and growth potential, nuclear – in countries where it is accepted – can help ensure secure, diverse low emissions electricity systems”, the report said.     
 
Nuclear energy is currently the second largest source of low emissions power after hydropower, and building sustainable and clean energy systems will be harder, riskier and more expensive without nuclear, according to the report. 
 
About 63 percent of today’s nuclear generating capacity comes from plants that are more than 30 years old, since many were built in the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks. However, a range of both advanced and emerging economies have recently announced energy strategies that include substantial roles for nuclear power as well as considerable financial incentives to invest in it. 
 
“In today’s context of the global energy crisis, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, energy security challenges and ambitious climate commitments, I believe nuclear power has a unique opportunity to stage a comeback”, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement. 
 
“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. As a result, advanced economies have lost market leadership, as 27 out of 31 reactors that started construction since 2017 are Russian or Chinese designs”, he added.  
 
In the scenario drawn up by the IEA to reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE), nuclear power doubles between 2020 and 2050, with construction of new plants needed in all countries that are open to the technology. Even so, nuclear only accounts for 8 percent of the global power mix by 2050, which is dominated by renewables. 
 
According to the report, despite moves to extend the lifetimes of some existing plants, the nuclear fleet operating in advanced economies could shrink by one-third by 2030 without further efforts. While plant lifetime extensions require substantial investment, they generally yield a cost of electricity that is competitive with wind and solar in most regions. 

The report says robust policies are needed to support the use of nuclear power and enhance its safety, but industry also must do a better job at delivering projects below cost and within budget to guarantee that nuclear-generated electricity is competitive.  

Government financing will remain necessary to mobilise new investment, not just for plants but also to develop the latest technologies because there is rarely sufficient private sector finance for such capital-intensive and long-lived assets like nuclear. 

A total of 19 countries currently have nuclear reactors under construction, demonstrating the recent momentum behind nuclear power that is likely to be further stimulated by the current spikes in oil, gas and electricity prices.  

In the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 pathway, half of the emissions reductions by mid-century come from technologies that have not yet become commercialised. This includes small modular reactors (SMRs), which are defined as nuclear reactors with a capacity of less than 300 MW.  

The report points out that the lower cost, smaller size and reduced project risks of SMRs may improve their social acceptance and attract private investment, while there is growing support and interest in various countries for this advanced technology.