IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm closed the IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century which ended in Washington DC on 28 October. Grossi made a global appeal to advance the benefits nuclear energy in face of a pessimistic new report on climate change and the ongoing energy crisis.

Grossi brought the conference to a close together with its president, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, following three days of high-level talks involving around 800 participants including ministers, senior officials, policy makers and experts from 69 countries and nine international organisations. Russia, however, was excluded from the proceedings. The participants agreed that nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gases during operation, can make a significant contribution to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement, according to the conference conclusions read out by Secretary Granholm.

“The topical discussions we had over the past three days, I think, encapsulate very well the opportunities and the challenges we have ahead of us,” Grossi said in his concluding remarks. “In four years, another conference like this will take place; let’s make it our commitment that many of the things that we said during these days in Washington needed to be done, are going to be already well under way. It is not only the good thing to do. It is what we all need.”

The conference ended one day after the United Nations Environment Programme issued a report on the world’s efforts to prevent global warming from crossing the threshold into catastrophic climate change, stating there is currently no credible pathway to 1.5 degrees Celsius in place. “Only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid an accelerating climate disaster,” said the report, issued about a week before world leaders and policy makers meet in Egypt for the annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP27).

The convergence of the global climate and energy crises, which has driven up fuel prices in many regions and highlighted the need for clean and secure energy supplies, has revived interest in nuclear power around the world, Grossi said at the start of the conference. Currently, 32 countries operate nuclear power, which provides some 10% of the world’s electricity but accounts for 25% of its clean electricity. Another 30 countries are embarking on or considering the introduction of nuclear power, with support from the IAEA.

Grossi said he saw a “palpable change” in global perceptions amid new interest in nuclear power from Africa and Asia to the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. This includes countries that are now reversing previous policies to phase out nuclear as well as those that are “decisively moving into nuclear because we have to be led by science and by economically feasible decisions, and not by ideology”.

In her concluding summary, Secretary Granholm noted that “nuclear power is currently the only low carbon technology that can produce electricity and heat at scale. It produces electricity at predictable costs. And it enables the massive expansion of wind and solar by providing dispatchable power and stabilizing grids. That makes it an attractive and reliable source of scalable power, which can support economic development, while helping meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

At the conference, government ministers and officials from around the world delivered national statements about nuclear power. Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, and investor and philanthropist Bill Gates addressed the event via video. Nuclear power capacity needs to triple by 2050 to achieve climate goals, William D Magwood IV, Director-General of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said at the opening session.

The event also featured five panel sessions plus four In Focus events, including one in which Grossi and Secretary Granholm discussed efforts to increase the number of women in the nuclear field through initiatives, such as the IAEA’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme. This included an announcement by Grossi of a new IAEA initiative, the Lise Meitner Programme, named after the Austrian-born physicist who was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission. The new programme will be aimed at retaining female talent in the nuclear field by providing tailored visits to centres of nuclear excellence around the world, with the United States as the inaugural partner.

Meitner “is the example of the woman scientist fighting against all odds,” Grossi said, explaining the choice of the new programme’s name. “She had to fight Nazism, she had to leave Austria because she was Jewish, so she had everything against her. And she made it.”

The panels focused on using nuclear power to achieve net zero, creating the conditions for countries to establish new nuclear programmes, expanding the contribution of existing nuclear power plants to net zero goals, accelerating the deployment of advanced technologies, including small modular reactors (SMRs), and the future of nuclear energy regulatory oversight—including the need to harmonize approaches to facilitate deployment.

In her summary, Granholm said: “Several demonstration plants and first-of-a-kind SMR units are expected to begin operating in the coming years. Governments and public-private partnerships provide human and financial resources and create favourable conditions to advance these kinds of demonstration projects.” However, she added that safe, secure and sustainable national nuclear power programmes require a decades-long commitment by governments and that “the highest standards of nuclear safety, security and safeguards are important to all countries and their citizens.”

Image: IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm closed the IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century today in Washington, DC (courtesy of IAEA)