Nuclear energy offers electricity grids flexibility and enables them to absorb more variable renewable energy sources, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on 3 June at the Twelfth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM12) and Mission Innovation (MI-6) Forum, hosted by Chile. The virtual event looked at how nuclear power generation can contribute to reducing carbon emissions in the fight against climate change. Nuclear energy is a key source of low-carbon energy and over the past decade has helped mitigate over two gigatonnes of CO2 emissions a year.

A side event, part of the Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future Initiative (NICE Future), brought together thought leaders to discuss how technological breakthroughs and innovations can further nuclear energy’s contribution to climate action and accelerate strategies to cleaner energy. During a panel discussion, Grossi was joined by World Nuclear Association (WNA) Director General Sama Bilbao y Léon, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD NEA) Director-General William D. Magwood  IV and International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol.

Highlighting how IAEA programmes provide advice and technical assistance to countries considering and pursuing nuclear energy, Grossi said developing countries were “showing a tremendous interest and appetite in nuclear energy options as they move into the global climate framework and set zero emission goals.” He said that after agreeing to and endorsing goals to address climate change, governments now needed to look in their carbon mitigation toolboxes,  with nuclear energy as an option.

Today, around 30 countries around the world are considering or embarking on nuclear power to drive sustainable development and reduce carbon emissions. The IAEA through its Milestones Approach provides integrated support to these countries in establishing or expanding safe, secure, and sustainable nuclear power programme. With more countries launching their first NPPs, and significant expansion in some countries, total global nuclear capacity is expected to grow despite the scheduled closure of several nuclear plants in the coming years. New technologies are also expected to contribute in this regard.

Grossi said nuclear energy and its innovations are often misconstrued as a future energy alternative, when in reality nuclear already contributes around a third of global low-carbon electricity generation. In November, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, world leaders will discuss decarbonisation targets and approaches to align with the goal of keeping average temperature rises to 1.5°C this century.  Grossi urged decision makers to consider nuclear energy to meet those targets, particularly as an immediate replacement for carbon intensive coal-fired power plants.

OECD NEA Director-General Magwood  said that there was a narrow window now for the nuclear industry to bring new technologies to market if they are to make a contribution to energy transition: “Many say nuclear is too far away in the time frame of the climate crisis. I can tell you that’s not the case and there are technologies that could be on the market within the next five years that could help.”

Speaking about emerging technologies such as microreactors (MRs) and small modular reactors (SMRs),  Magwood  said the nuclear industry needs to now prove these technologies by bringing them to market and making sure they can be cost effective and built on schedule.

WNA Director General Bilbao y Léon said that two parts of nuclear energy’s equation — private and public sectors — need to work together and that industry needs to rise to the occasion and deliver. Per kilowatt-hour, nuclear energy emits 40 times less greenhouse gases than an efficient gas-fired power plant. “Maintaining our current nuclear fleet through licence extensions is the easiest thing we can do to have a huge impact in our decarbonisation goals,” she said. “We depend on this resource and for us to lose this capacity would take us a big step backwards in the clean energy transition.”

IEA Executive Secretary Birol said the IEA Net Zero by 2050 roadmap, released last month, showed that the pathway towards meeting global climate ambitions was narrow but achievable if countries moved quickly and boldly. “We have three jobs to do: to make the most of the technologies we have today, bring the future technologies that are in development to market, and drastically reduce use of fossil fuels.” He highlighted SMRs as one of the technologies that must be brought to market.

Emphasising that countries need to come together to rapidly decarbonise,  Birol said richer countries have a head start and need to assist poorer ones: “This is a race to zero, but not a race amongst countries. This is a race against time. Unless everyone finishes this race, nobody wins.”

Grossi said that the long-term operation of nuclear power plants is a growing trend and the public needs to be given assurances that it is not only efficient and climate-friendly but also safe. He said that the IAEA is stepping up its support to provide reviews and advice to governments and operators for them to ensure safe, secure and effective long-term operation activities. Later in June, IAEA will release a new set of guidelines for nuclear facility operators on safety aspects of operation, adding guidance for long-term operating power reactors, early-phase nuclear power plant operation, and research reactors, amongst other topics.

Grossi also highlighted a new Agency platform on SMRs that will provide countries a single access point for IAEA services on all aspects of SMR development, deployment and oversight, both for electric and non-electric applications. The IAEA is also developing generic SMR user requirements to harmonise codes and standards and provide guidance for both the public and private sectors.