Nuclear Energy for a Net Zero World (Credit: IAEA)In the run up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26 in November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has published a comprehensive report setting out how nuclear techniques can help the world adapt to a changing climate and become more resilient to extreme weather events.

The 41-page report, “Nuclear Science and Technology for Climate Adaptation and Resilience”, offers case studies of IAEA supported projects in countries where nuclear techniques are used to tackle climate related food, water and marine challenges. It outlines a wide range of existing nuclear techniques that support sustainable land and water management, climate smart agriculture, food production systems, analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, coastal protection and the monitoring of ocean change.

“The world is facing a climate emergency that is threatening people’s lives and livelihoods,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who will attend COP26 in Glasgow to highlight the role of nuclear energy and technology in mitigating and adapting to climate change. “Nuclear techniques offer a tangible way to respond to this challenge, such as breeding sturdier crops, protecting scarce water resources and much more – now and in the future.”

At COP26 in November, world leaders will review their 2015 commitment from Paris to limit the temperature increase to well below 2°C and aim for 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. According to COP26 Explained, the world is currently not on track to meet this goal, and more catastrophic flooding, bush fires, extreme weather and destruction of species are expected to occur by 2100.

The IAEA will be participating actively in COP26 to draw attention to the role of nuclear energy in climate change mitigation and raise awareness of how nuclear science and technology already significantly support efforts in climate change adaptation and monitoring. “We need to translate words into actions, and we should do that by using every available scientific tool, including nuclear technology,” said Grossi. “The IAEA is a tested partner on climate action and will contribute to the discussions at COP26 in Glasgow on how to accelerate solutions. We hope this document serves as a valuable reference for our potential partners.” 

During the period 2012–2020, the IAEA said it has helped 102 countries and territories to adapt to the impacts of climate change through 481 targeted technical cooperation projects, with total disbursements of approximately €112 million.

Over 70% of the IAEA’s climate adaptation related projects focus on climate smart agricultural practices and optimising livestock and crop production. This includes the development through mutation breeding of new improved crop varieties of, for example, tomatoes and soybeans that can thrive under changing environmental conditions, perform better in harsh environments, or resist new pathogens. Nuclear techniques can be used to suppress insect pests such as fruit flies or mosquitos to fight Zika, dengue and other diseases, as well as to monitor soil erosion caused by, for instance, heavy rainfall.

As explained in the new document, the IAEA also supports understanding of the availability and movements of water affected by climate change. Such information could, for example, reveal that heavy rains originate from evaporated ocean water or estimate the age and location of valuable groundwater resources hidden from the human eye. The document also addresses other topics such as how nuclear techniques tackle sea level rise and ocean acidification.

The importance of nuclear energy for net zero

The IAEA on 15 October issued a separate report on the importance of nuclear power for achieving a net zero world.  “Nuclear Energy for a Net Zero World” highlights nuclear power’s critical role in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development by displacing coal and other fossil fuels, enabling the further deployment of renewable energy and becoming an economical source for large amounts of clean hydrogen.

The 73-page report lays out the reasons why nuclear must have a seat at the table whenever energy and climate policies are discussed. In addition, nine countries—Canada, China, Finland, France, Japan, Poland, Russia, the USA and the United Kingdom—provided statements in the report in support of its findings on nuclear power’s contributions to climate action.

Marking the launch of the report, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi engaged in a conversation in an online event with Michal Kurtyka, Poland’s Minister of Climate and Environment. “Over the past five decades, nuclear power has cumulatively avoided the emission of about 70 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) and continues to avoid more than 1 Gt CO2 annually,” the Director General said in his foreword to the report. “As we head toward (COP26), it is time to make evidence-based decisions and ramp up the investment in nuclear. The cost of not doing so is far too high to bear.”

The report has chapters on: 

  • The contribution of nuclear energy; 
  • Moving away from coal: nuclear power for a sustainable and just transition;
  • Driving energy systems to net zero:
  • Nuclear–renewables systems including hydrogen;
  • Nuclear power and climate resilient energy infrastructures;
  • Nuclear energy investment for a sustainable post-Covid world; and
  •  Nuclear technology and sustainable development.

It demonstrates how nuclear power is vital for achieving the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring 24/7 energy supply, which provides stability and resilience to electrical grids and facilitates the wider integration of variable renewables such as wind and solar needed to drive the clean energy transition. In addition, nuclear power as a firm source of low carbon electricity is well suited to replace coal and other fossil fuels while also providing heat and hydrogen to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors such as industry and transportation. As such, nuclear power represents one of the most effective investments for the post-pandemic global economic recovery, contributing directly to UN Sustainable Development goals on energy, economic expansion and climate action.

A key topic at COP26 will be accelerating the transition from coal. The report notes that replacing 20% of coal generation with 250GW of nuclear generation would reduce emissions by 2Gt CO2, or around 15% of electricity sector emissions per year. Nuclear power can also substitute coal-fired boilers for district heating and industry.

The report outlines how nuclear power can be a "significant driver of economic growth, generating jobs in many sectors and enabling a just transition to clean energy." Nuclear power, with a 10% share of global electricity generation, already provides over 800 000 jobs. International Monetary Fund estimates show that investments in nuclear power generate a larger economic impact than those in other forms of energy, making it among the most effective actions for a sustainable economic recovery as well as the transition to a resilient net zero energy system.

Nuclear power’s partnership with renewables will be key to driving emissions to net zero, according to the report. Because it is dispatchable, low emission, flexible and reliable, nuclear power can underpin net zero energy mixes based on electricity, while also helping to lower the costs of the overall electricity generating system.

Non-power sectors including steel, cement and chemical production, shipping and air transport—which together account for around 60% of energy-related global emissions—will require the deployment of heat or energy carriers such as hydrogen which must be produced with a low carbon footprint. Nuclear energy can provide low carbon heat and be used to produce hydrogen, particularly with high-temperature reactors currently under development.

The report underscores how resilient energy systems will rely on the robustness of individual generation technologies, grid infrastructure and demand side measures. The nuclear sector is well prepared to face the challenges posed by climate change including the risks of more frequent and more extreme weather events and has developed specific adaptation measures to mitigate these risks. While the frequency of weather-related outages at nuclear power plants has increased over the last 30 years, total production losses were minor, with reduced losses over the past decade, according to data from the IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System.

The publication recommends a series of actions aimed at accelerating the wider deployment of nuclear power, including:

  • Introduce carbon pricing and measures to value low-carbon energy;
  • Adopt objective and technology neutral frameworks for low carbon investments;
  • Ensure markets, regulations and policies value and remunerate nuclear energy’s contribution to reliable and resilience low-carbon energy systems;
  • Boost public investment and support for private investment in nuclear power, including reactor lifetime extensions, as part of “green deal” and recovery packages; and
  • Promote diversified electricity systems to mitigate climate risks to energy infrastructure, ensuring the continuity and quality of electricity services.

“The task ahead of us — limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5°C and achieving net zero emissions by 2050 — is a formidable challenge and an immense economic opportunity,” John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate for the United States of America, said in his statement for the IAEA report. “The global clean energy transition will require deploying, at massive scale, the full range of clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy, over the next decade and beyond.”

Ruslan Edelgeriev, Special Presidential Representative on Climate Issues and Adviser to Russia’s President said in his statement that international and local regulations, along with policies for strategic development of national economies and industries, should not restrict the use of nuclear energy, provided that all safety requirements are met. “We are absolutely convinced that nuclear energy is a high-tech, environmentally friendly and safe industry — for both the present and the future. It is impossible to solve problems of the climate agenda without the peaceful atom.”