IEA rediscovers nuclear power

4 July 2022

Faced with a global energy crisis, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has published a special report in which it concluded that nuclear power has the potential to play a significant role in helping countries to securely transition to energy systems dominated by renewables. This is a major policy shift for the IEA, which has generally sidelined nuclear in previous reports.

The 95-page “Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transitions: From Today’s Challenges to Tomorrow’s Clean Energy Systems” looks at how nuclear energy could help address two major crises – energy and climate – facing the world today. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the disruptions in global energy supplies that it has fuelled have made governments rethink their energy security strategies, putting a stronger focus on developing more diverse and domestically based supplies,” IEA says. “For multiple governments, nuclear energy is among the options for achieving this. At the same time, many governments have in recent years stepped up their ambitions and commitments to reach net zero emissions.”

IEA says its new report expands upon its earlier “landmark” 2021 report, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. “It does so by exploring in depth nuclear power’s potential role as a source of low emissions electricity that is available on demand to complement the leading role of renewables such as wind and solar in the transition to electricity systems with net zero emissions.”

The Roadmap made only two mentions of nuclear in its 15-page summary for policymakers. It said that by 2050, almost 90% of electricity generation would come from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for nearly 70%, adding: “Most of the remainder comes from nuclear.” The Roadmap drew criticism from the World Nuclear Association (WNA) which said IEA’s Net Zero Emissions scenario “puts too much faith in technologies that are uncertain, untested, or unreliable and fails to reflect both the size and scope of the contribution nuclear technologies could make”.

IEA’s new report examines the difficulties facing nuclear investment, particularly in advanced economies, in the areas of cost, performance, safety and waste management. It considers “the additional challenge of meeting net zero targets with less nuclear power than envisioned in the IEA Net Zero Roadmap, as well as what kind of cost targets could enable nuclear power to play a larger role in energy transitions”.

For countries where nuclear power is considered an acceptable part of the future energy mix, the new report identifies the potential policy, regulatory and market changes that could be implemented to create new investment opportunities. It also looks at the role of new technologies, particularly small modular reactors, and their potential development and deployment.

The report makes a number of recommendations “directed at policy makers in countries that see a future for nuclear energy”. However, the IEA says it “makes no recommendations to countries that have chosen not to make use of nuclear power and fully respects their choice”. The recommendations are as follows:

•        Extend plant lifetimes. Authorise lifetime extensions of existing nuclear power plants so they can continue to operate for as long as safely possible.

•        Make electricity markets value dispatchable low emissions capacity. Design electricity markets to ensure nuclear power plants are compensated in a competitive and non-discriminatory manner for the avoidance of emissions and the services they provide to maintain electricity security, including capacity availability and frequency control.

•        Create financing frameworks to support new reactors. Set up risk management and financing frameworks to mobilise capital for new plants at an acceptable cost and with fair sharing of risks between investors and consumers.

•        Promote efficient and effective safety regulation. Ensure that safety regulators have the resources and skills to undertake timely reviews of new projects and designs, develop harmonised safety criteria for new designs, and engage with potential developers and the public to ensure that licensing requirements are clearly communicated.

•        Implement solutions for nuclear waste disposal. Involve citizens in prioritising approval and construction of high-level waste disposal facilities in countries that do not yet have them.

•        Accelerate the development and deployment of small modular reactors. Identify opportunities where SMRs could be a cost-effective low emissions source of electricity, heat and hydrogen. Support investment in demonstration projects and in developing supply chains.

•        Re-evaluate plans according to performance. Make long-term support contingent on the industry delivering safe projects on time and on budget.

“In today’s context of the global energy crisis, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, energy security challenges and ambitious climate commitments, I believe nuclear power has a unique opportunity to stage a comeback,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “However, a new era for nuclear power is by no means guaranteed. It will depend on governments putting in place robust policies to ensure safe and sustainable operation of nuclear plants for years to come – and to mobilise the necessary investments including in new technologies. And the nuclear industry must quickly address the issues of cost overruns and project delays that have bedevilled the construction of new plants in advanced economies. As a result, advanced economies have lost market leadership, as 27 out of 31 reactors that started construction since 2017 are Russian or Chinese designs.”

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