The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is developinga new report, The Role of Nuclear Energy in Sustainable Development: Entry Pathways. It was developed under the guidance of UNECE’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group with support from World Nuclear Association (WNA), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.
It has been "a very successful collaborative effort by UNECE, with these other international organisations", said King Lee, who leads WNA’s Harmony Programme, and who has been elected as chair of the UNECE Nuclear Fuel Working Group.
"The report explores nuclear technology contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals where it plays a key role in decarbonising the energy sector, but it can also support the attainment of all other Sustainable Development Goals - including supporting the elimination of poverty, zero hunger, clean water, affordable energy, economic growth and industry innovation,” Lee said." It highlights SDG 7 energy as 'central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today'. Energy access supports all of the SDGs and is a key pillar of the UN's sustainable development agenda."
Nuclear power currently provides 10% of global electricity supply, from 450 reactor units in operation in 30 countries. In the advanced economies "as a group", nuclear power is the largest low-carbon source of electricity, providing 40% of all clean energy production in 2018.
A country's adoption of nuclear energy is "a major undertaking" that requires significant policy support and investment into building institutions, human resources, science and physical infrastructure as well as extensive cooperation with international partners, Lee said.
The report draws on the internationally recognised process for nuclear energy programme development - the IAEA's Milestones Approach - and highlights five nuclear development considerations that are readily aligned with sustainable development: energy system evaluation and planning; socioeconomic development factors; environmental factors; regulatory and legal factors; and economics and project financing.
Initial discussion on the report between UNECE, IAEA and WNA took place in November 2018 at the Ninth International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development, held in Kiev, Ukraine. UNECE says the draft report aims to inform sound policy formulation for countries considering nuclear energy programmes and to help them define locally relevant pathways to support sustainable development.
“Particular attention is given to newcomer countries and the deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs).” The report explores pathways in the context of “local and regional factors”, including utilisation of domestic uranium resources, that could facilitate nuclear energy and economic development.
The report has the following substantive chapters:
- Chapter 2. Nuclear energy and sustainable development: how nuclear energy relates to the SDGs and its potential role in the future decarbonized energy mix.
- Chapter 3. Nuclear development considerations: five common nuclear development factors include energy planning, socioeconomics, environment, legal and regulatory framework, and economics.
- Chapter 4. National and Regional Considerations: presentation of the broader nuclear fuel cycle and exploration of the relative advantages of developing domestic facilities versus potential regional or international options, as well as options for radioactive waste management and disposal.
- Chapter 5. Nuclear Technology Options: appraisal of the range of ‘gigawatt-scale’ nuclear technologies available today as well as small modular reactors which are rapidly approaching commercialisation.
- Chapter 6. Nuclear energy entry pathways: the role of policy – how the existing policy framework can help a country make a decision on whether to pursue a nuclear energy programme, and what policy initiatives can help to improve the economics of a programme and build public support for it once a decision is taken.
In its Preface, the report says: “The world had agreed to make 2020 the year to usher in a decade of ambitious action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Unfortunately, the end of 2019 brought a more urgent challenge in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic….With possible economic stress caused by the pandemic, there could be a push to adopt solutions that undermine sustainable development and aggravate the impacts of climate change. An essential understanding of the technologies that can lead towards a green recovery is needed.”
The focus of the report is “on meeting a need expressed by decision and policy makers in a number of countries worldwide who are considering whether they should include nuclear energy in their portfolio of options supporting sustainable development. Some countries choose to pursue nuclear energy with the view that it can play an important role in their energy mix, while other countries have decided not to depend on nuclear energy for a variety of considerations.
Scott Foster, director of UNECE's Sustainable Energy Division, said the climate emergency was now at "10 past midnight" and that a technology neutral approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions was vital.