Two new reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), published on 27 September, argue nuclear power can significantly contribute to combating climate change and ensuring sustainable development. “Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2016”, an IAEA report that is updated each year, reviews nuclear power’s potential to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.

The new edition sets the scene for the next United Nations climate conference in November, which aims to build on last December’s Agreement on climate change in Paris, where 195 countries adopted the first universal, legally binding global climate accord. It established a plan of action to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels. The November meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, is expected to chart the path for implementing the agreement.

The report discusses the importance of innovation, investment and research for advancing nuclear energy technology as a viable choice for countries to address climate change. It also addresses the need for reliable and predictable low-carbon technologies such as nuclear power, along with accelerated deployment of renewable sources.

Many countries intend to increase nuclear-based electricity generation to contribute to cost-effective decarbonisation, the report says. This requires “a strong political will and coordinated action by the international community and multinational enterprises”. The nuclear capacity needed to meet the stringent climate objectives of the Paris agreement is estimated to be around 950GWe by 2050, more than double the worldwide capacity of the 441 commercial nuclear reactors operating today, which was 383GWe at the end of 2015. Supporting such large-scale deployment, given the long planning horizons, component long lead times and limited industrial capacities, poses a major challenge to the nuclear industry, the report says.

“Nuclear Power and Sustainable Development”, updated for the first time since 2006, explores the contribution of nuclear power to sustainable development. Expanding access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted unanimously by the UN last September, with the aim of ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all.

By employing a large selection of indicators, the new report reviews the characteristics of nuclear power compared with alternative sources of electricity according to economic, environmental and social pillars of sustainability. It also provides factual information in areas of concern often raised by the public about the use of nuclear power.

“To meet the goal of the Paris Agreement, as well as to secure sustainable and reliable energy for all as called for by the SDGs, all-low carbon sources of energy are needed, including nuclear power, in a combined strategy with renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency,” David Shropshire, Head of the IAEA’s Planning and Economic Studies Section, which produced both studies.

Also, in its latest edition of “Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050”, the  IAEA projects continued growth in nuclear electricity generating capacity to 2030, although at a slower pace than previously anticipated. Nuclear power generating capacity is projected to grow by between 1.9% and 56% by 2030, compared with the previous estimate of between 2.4% and 68% from last year. In the low case scenario, capacity is seen to expand to 390.2GWe by 2030 from 382.9GWe in 2015, while in the high case it grows to 598.2GWe.

"Uncertainty related to energy policy, licence renewals, shutdowns and future constructions account for the wide range," the IAEA says. "The projections from 2030 to 2050 involve greater degrees of uncertainty." The IAEA suggests over the short term, growth of nuclear energy will be impacted by factors including low natural gas prices, decreasing costs for renewables, "lack of market signals for low-carbon energy", and a slow growth in the global economy. While the low case scenario shows only modest growth, the IAEA says the need to replace ageing reactors means "total new capacity constructed will be much greater than the apparent net increase".

Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA deputy director general and head of its nuclear energy department, said: "Nuclear energy, in the long run, will continue to play an important role in the world's energy mix. With populations and demand for electricity growing, nuclear power can help ensure reliable and secure energy supplies while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, nuclear power can help lift millions of people out of energy poverty while also combatting climate change."