Nuclear plays minor role in IEA World Energy Outlook 2023

31 October 2023

IEA’s new World Energy Outlook 2023 sees a phenomenal rise of clean energy technologies. It describes an energy system in 2030 in which clean technologies play a significantly greater role than today. This includes almost 10 times as many electric cars on the road worldwide; solar PV generating more electricity than the entire US power system does currently; renewables’ share of the global electricity mix nearing 50%, up from around 30% today; heat pumps and other electric heating systems outselling fossil fuel boilers globally; and three times as much investment going into new offshore wind projects than into new coal- and gas-fired power plants.

IEA says the combination of growing momentum behind clean energy technologies and structural economic shifts around the world “has major implications for fossil fuels, with peaks in global demand for coal, oil and natural gas all visible this decade – the first time this has happened in a WEO scenario based on today’s policy settings”. In this scenario, the share of fossil fuels in global energy supply, which has been stuck for decades at around 80%, declines to 73% by 2030, with global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions peaking by 2025.

“The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ – and the sooner the better for all of us,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Governments, companies and investors need to get behind clean energy transitions rather than hindering them…. Taking into account the ongoing strains and volatility in traditional energy markets today, claims that oil and gas represent safe or secure choices for the world’s energy and climate future look weaker than ever.”

The WEO-2023 proposes a global strategy for getting the world on track by 2030 that consists of five key pillars. These are: tripling global renewable capacity; doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvements; slashing methane emissions from fossil fuel operations by 75%; innovative, large-scale financing mechanisms to triple clean energy investments in emerging and developing economies; and measures to ensure an orderly decline in the use of fossil fuels, including an end to new approvals of unabated coal-fired power plants.

It is notable that the press release makes no mention at all of nuclear. The 353-page report itself mentions nuclear 114 times – mostly in passing or in tables. By contrast, renewables are mentioned 174 times, solar 408 times, wind 233 times coal 492 times and gas 792 times.

The only reference to nuclear in the Foreword is to note: “A second difference between the 1970s and today is that we already have the clean energy technologies for the job in hand. The 1973 oil shock was a major catalyst for change, driving a huge push to scale up energy efficiency and nuclear power. But it still took many years to ramp them up while some other key technologies like wind and solar were still emerging. Today, solar, wind, efficiency and electric cars are all well established and readily available – and their advantages are only being reinforced by turbulence among the traditional technologies. We have the lasting solutions to today’s energy dilemmas at our disposal.”

The same point is made in the Executive Summary: “Fifty years on from the first oil shock, the world has lasting solutions to address energy insecurity that can also help tackle the climate crisis. The first oil shock 50 years ago brought two crucial policy responses firmly into play: energy efficiency and low-emissions power, led at the time by hydropower and nuclear. Today’s energy decision makers are once again facing geopolitical tensions and the risk of energy shocks, but they have a much broader range of highly competitive clean technologies at their disposal, and an accumulated wealth of policy experience on how to accelerate their deployment. The crucial step is to put these readily available solutions to work.”

The Executive Summary, after noting significant projected increases under various scenarios for wind and solar, says “Prospects for nuclear power have also improved in leading markets, with support for lifetime extensions of existing nuclear reactors in countries including Japan, Korea and the United States, as well as for new builds in several more.”

The scenarios used by IEA are: the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS)which provides an outlook based on the latest policy settings, including energy, climate and related industrial policies; the Announced Pledges Scenario (APS), which assumes all national energy and climate targets made by governments are met in full and on time; and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario which limits global warming to 1.5 °C.

In Chapter 2, Setting the scene, IEA says “The share of low-emissions generation sources (renewables plus nuclear) in the global mix is set to reach 40% in 2023 – a new high. Solar is leading the charge: solar PV capacity, including both large utility-scale and small distributed systems, accounts for two-thirds of the 2023 estimated increase in global renewable capacity. The 26% annual growth in solar generation in 2022 was aligned with the near-term rates required in the NZE Scenario, and planned additions provide confidence that high growth can be sustained. Nuclear capacity additions grew by 40% in 2022, with 8 GW coming online, mostly in China, Finland, Korea and Pakistan. Moreover, many governments are taking a fresh look at how nuclear might contribute to their energy futures, as they did after the oil price shocks of the 1970s.”

Nuclear gets most attention in Chapter 3, Pathways for the energy mix, in the section on electricity. IEA notes: “Nuclear power is the second-largest source of low-emissions power worldwide today, behind hydropower but far larger than wind or solar PV. In advanced economies, nuclear power is the largest source of low-emissions electricity. After a decade of slow deployment in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, a changing policy landscape is creating opportunities for a nuclear comeback. Nuclear power capacity increases from 417 GW in 2022 to 620 GW in 2050 in the STEPS, with growth mainly in China and other emerging markets and developing economies, while advanced economies carry out widespread lifetime extensions and look to build new projects to offset retirements. Large-scale reactors remain the dominant form of nuclear power in all scenarios, including advanced reactor designs, but the development of and growing interest in small modular reactors increases the potential for nuclear power in the long run”.

IEA says: “More lifetime extensions and new construction in countries open to nuclear power boost global capacity in the APS to 770 GW in 2050, and to well over 900 GW in the NZE Scenario, where nuclear construction reaches new heights.”

However, in line with previous IEA publications, the overall impression is that nuclear is at best, an afterthought, which receives only grudging attention.

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