Some 550 participants from 79 countries and 18 international organisations took part in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Conference in Vienna on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power from 7 to 11 October, organised in cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA).
A wide range of topic were covered in 130 presentations in the plenary meetings,18 technical sessions and eight specialised side events as well as more than 40 posters. The technical sessions covered three broad topics: finance sources, cost reduction potential and investment; innovative and current technologies, including hybrid energy systems and non-electrical applications; and partnership mechanisms, communications and public perception.
Opening the conference, IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov said: “The world urgently needs solutions to climate change. Nuclear power is already making an important contribution and can play an increasing role in the future.” He added that nuclear power has been "proving for decades" it can meet the challenges of climate change and sustainable development.
Cornel Feruta, IAEA Acting Director General said he hoped the conference “will contribute to an informed consideration of nuclear power on the basis of facts and, possibly, help to dispel some misconceptions”. He noted that some 70% of the world’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. “By 2050, if climate change goals are to be met, around 80% of electricity will need to be low-carbon. Making that transition will be a major challenge.” He added: “At present, nuclear power provides 10% of the world’s electricity. But it accounts for one-third of all low-carbon electricity generated today. That fact deserves to be better known. The world will need to harness all low-carbon sources of energy in order to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels….Together with hydropower, nuclear is the only low-carbon source of energy that can replace fossil fuels for 24/7 baseload power.”
NEA Director-General William D Magwood, IV said "finding the right approach" to long-term, economic and reliable electricity supply is the central challenge to the decarbonisation of the future economy. “A vision of the future that incorporates variable renewable energy sources and cost-effective, advanced nuclear energy in a balance based on economic reality is one path to success,” Magwood said. “Take any technology off the table, and we find the solution much more difficult."
Magwood said action on climate change should not threaten the lifestyle of developed countries or the industrial aspirations of emerging economies seeking to reduce poverty and improve health, education, and quality of life. “It is essential that action on climate change not be viewed as in conflict with these aspirations. To the degree it is, the hope of realising substantial decarbonisation will be reduced."
Nuclear is avaiable and "more than capable" of delivering a solution
Key speakers addressing the first plenary session reinforced the messages of the opening speeches. Liu Zhenmin, undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), pointed to the lack of progress both in meeting the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and in bringing climate conditions to pre-industrial levels. The urgency cannot be exaggerated, he said, describing the conditions of 840 million people still "living in darkness".
Acknowledging that nuclear power plants have avoided the emission of 1-2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent compared with fossil fuels, he questioned whether this would continue. “It depends on how nuclear power is evaluated with renewable energy and other clean alternatives," he said, noting that two-thirds of today's nuclear plants are more than 30 years old making it necessary to extend their operation or build new plants. He also drew attention to other applications of nuclear energy in medicine and agriculture. The technology is "readily available to make significant headway", he said.
LI Yong, director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), noting that 2015-2019 experienced the hottest weather on record, said: "Young people are taking to the streets to remind us of the urgency of climate change. If we continue on our current path, then we will have global warming of at least 3 degrees by 2100. That’s alarming, given that any temperature rise above 1.5 degrees will lead to irreversible damage."
Industry accounts for more than a third of global energy consumption and a quarter of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), and industry must therefore be part of a "paradigm change" in energy generation, he said. An analysis of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) shows the importance of cooperation between governments and industry associations on technological solutions", he said. Energy efficiency, innovation and climate financing are the "action areas" required for deep decarbonisation, he said, adding that about 40% of green house gas emission reductions needed by 2040 could be achieved by improving efficiency in the supply and end-use of energy.
He noted that the Private Financing Advisory Network (PFAN) of climate and clean energy financing experts, which aims to bring together entrepreneurs developing climate and clean energy projects and private sector investors had 110 clean energy projects to date and had raised $1.5 billion in investments. In the past eight years, 835 companies in eight countries have been “mobilising investment”, he said.
Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said an IPCC special report published last October had featured four model pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. All four included increases in nuclear power generation by 2050, ranging between 59% and 501%, he added. While it is feasible to limit global warming to around 0.5 degrees, along with other advantages a clean economy, including job creation, this requires urgent action on energy efficiency, increased electrification and decarbonisation of electricity supply. The share of electricity in total energy use is projected to more than double, from 19% in 2020 to 43% in 2050. "The opportunity exists," he said, but capturing that opportunity "depends on the speed at which nuclear technologies can be deployed".
The final speaker was Agneta Rising, director general of Word Nuclear Association, who said the nuclear industry is ready and "more than capable" of delivering a solution to climate change and sustainable development. However, without the support of governments around the world, the nuclear option “will fade away". Policymakers need to recognise, she said, that nuclear power is "moving higher up the agenda" in discussions of both topics.
It is a myth, Rising said, that nuclear power plants take too long to build to be a viable response to the urgent need for action on climate change. Construction times average five to seven years, but 27% of the reactors that started operation since 2016 were built in fewer than five years, she said. Between 2016 and 2020, 47 new reactors are due to be online in 11 countries, including two are newcomers. These will add 15% to global nuclear capacity, she said. They are based on 20 different designs, of which nine are being built for the first time. During this period, the construction rate doubled from less than 5GWe a year to 10 GWe a year, but this rate needs to double and then triple, she said.
IEA warns of 'dangerous disconnect' between climate change ambitions and what is happening
The meeting also saw a video address from Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), who said the IEA had “all the energy data at its fingertips” which led it to produce a report on nuclear power this year. He noted that global energy demand last year increased most rapidly in the last ten years - about 2.3% - while electricity demand increased twice as much, representing an on-going trend. "In 2018, despite the growth in renewable energy - in solar, wind and others - we saw that global emissions increased and reached a record high. As such, the key message is that there is a growing and dangerous disconnect between the climate ambitions - the reports, the meetings and government intentions - and what is happening in real life.”
The IEA therefore believes that that we have to look at all clean energy technologies - solar and wind but also nuclear power, carbon capture, utilisation and storage, and other clean energy technologies.
"Our numbers show that today nuclear power is the second largest clean electricity source, following all other renewables put together and that in the most advanced economies, it is number one - 18% of total electricity generation.” However, he expressed concern about the ageing of the nuclear fleet and lack of major new activity in most of the developed countries, including lifetime extensions. Without the right policies in advanced economies, he said, the 18% in the total electricity generation will go down sharply to 6% making climate targets even more difficult.
"We think there is a role for governments, those governments especially who take climate change and electricity security seriously, to provide support for the existing power plants, providing the framework conditions for lifetime extensions, and also for all countries around the world to look at new technologies, such as SMRs, which are very promising technologies, and they can be of great help for developed and developing countries in meeting their growing electricity demand.”
He said: “In the electricity sector, we need all technologies to be part of the game. Some of us favour one and some another but we do not have the luxury to select our favourite technologies." It is time, he said, not for egos but to reduce CO2 emissions by bringing nuclear power together with other clean technologies.
Photo: A panel comprising Cornel Feruta, IAEA ActingDirector General; Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy and Conference President; William D. Magwood, IV, Director General of the OECD/NEA spoke about the importance of diversifying energy sources in the fight against climate change. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)