World leaders gathered in Brussels at the first ever Nuclear Energy Summit co-chaired by the Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi. The Summit was the highest-level meeting to date exclusively focused on the topic of nuclear energy. It followed inclusion of nuclear energy in the Global Stocktake agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai in December 2023 and the launch of the IAEA’s Atoms4NetZero initiative.

The night before the summit, Prime Minister de Croo and Grossi hosted an evening debate with more than 70 young science communicators at the Atomium in Brussels. The summit opened with speeches de Groo and Grossi before the adoption of a key declaration about nuclear energy. The meeting was then addressed by heads of state and heard other national statements. Technical panels in the afternoon discussed practical steps needed to leverage nuclear energy’s full potential to tackle global challenges. These included sessions on factors influencing deployment; global, regional and national perspectives; technological advancements and innovations; and importantly, finance.

Grossi in his opening address said it had taken 70 years since US President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace United Nations speech for the first nuclear energy summit at the level of national leaders to be held. “This is a global effort, the world needs us to get our act together" to ensure international financial institutions can finance nuclear and increase nuclear energy capacity "in a safe, secure and non-proliferation way". He added that the summit "shows the nuclear taboo is over, starting a new chapter for nuclear commitment". He added: “Acknowledging nuclear's necessity isn't enough. It's on political leaders to foster environments that encourage nuclear development. Without decisive action, the potential for nuclear to support the green transition could be lost.”

De Croo referenced Belgium’s change of policy – from closing nuclear plants to extending operation – and said it was increasingly recognised that nuclear had to be part of the mix, with renewables, if the net-zero goals were going to be met. Leaders and representatives from 32 countries voiced support for measures covering finance, technological innovation, regulatory cooperation and workforce training to support the expansion of nuclear capacity to tackle climate change and boost energy security.

A declaration was adopted signed byArgentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, France, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, UK, and the USA.

It stated: "We, the leaders of countries operating nuclear power plants, or expanding or embarking on or exploring the option of nuclear power … reaffirm our strong commitment to nuclear energy as a key component of our global strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both power and industrial sectors, ensure energy security, enhance energy resilience, and promote long-term sustainable development and clean energy transition.”

It added: "We are determined to do our utmost to fulfil this commitment through our active and direct engagement, in particular by enhancing cooperation with countries that opt to develop civil nuclear capacities in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a nationally determined manner, including for transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net-zero by mid-21st century in keeping with the science, as outlined in the First Global Stocktake of the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference."

It committed the signatories “to work to fully unlock the potential of nuclear energy by taking measures such as enabling conditions to support and competitively finance the lifetime extension of existing nuclear reactors, the construction of new nuclear power plants and the early deployment of advanced reactors, including small modular reactors, worldwide while maintaining the highest levels of safety and security, in accordance with respective national regulations and circumstances.”

They further committed “to support all countries, especially emerging nuclear ones, in their capacities and efforts to add nuclear energy to their energy mixes consistent with their different national needs, priorities, pathways, and approaches and create a more open, fair, balanced and inclusive environment for their development of nuclear energy, including its non-electrical applications, and to continue effectively implementing safeguards, consistent with member states’ national legislation and respective international obligations”.

The statement committed to continuing the drive for technological innovation, improving the operational performance, safety and economics of NPPs and “enhancing the resilience and security of global nuclear energy industrial and supply chains”. It also reaffirmed a commitment to ensuring safe, secure and sustainable used nuclear fuel and radwaste management and disposal.

It encouraged nuclear regulators to enhance cooperation to enable timely deployment of advanced reactors, including small modular reactors. It emphasised the value of “coordinated cooperation in nuclear fuel supply, nuclear power equipment manufacturing and resource security to ensure the stability of the nuclear energy industrial and supply chains”.

On finance, the statement supported efforts to facilitate mobilisation of public investments, where appropriate, and private investments or new NPP projects Concrete measures could include tools such as direct public financing, guarantees to debt and equity providers, schemes to share revenue and pricing risks. “We invite multinational development banks, international financial institutions and regional bodies that have the mandate to do so to consider strengthening their support for financing nuclear energy projects and to support the establishment of a financial level playing field for all zero emission sources of energy generation."

Among those addressing the summit was European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who acknowledged that the EU included different views on nuclear and said the future was not assured for nuclear, citing a falling share of electricity generation in the EU since the 1990s. However, she recognised its role in tackling the climate challenge, adding that assuming safety was assured, rather than closing NPPs countries should "consider their options carefully before foregoing a readily available source of low-emission electricity". She expressed support for SMRs. However, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, said: “Today I can assure you that nuclear is coming back, and coming back strongly.”

Chinese Vice Premier Zhong Guoqing, said it was crucial to double down on safety and security and also "to oppose politicisation of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy". A similar message was delivered by Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban who said nuclear was the only way of generating electricity which was cheap, safe, sustainable and reliable adding that it was in everyone's interests to prevent nuclear energy" becoming a "hostage of geopolitical hypocrisy and ideological debate".

John Podesta Senior Advisor for Clean Energy, Innovation & Implementation to the US President, referring to the commitment by countries at COP28 to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050, said a start had already been made. He added that the US aimed to help tackle the climate crisis by helping other countries across the world "build safe, secure, reliable, nuclear power".

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the alliance for new nuclear, saying nuclear energy was the only way to reconcile the need to reduce emissions, create jobs and boost energy security. While many countries were seeking to expand electrification, he said “if electricity is produced by fossil fuels it is a stupid move". He called for improving energy efficiency, and an increase renewables as well as new nuclear.

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, said: “For a long time, many of us had reservations… but times have changed, safety technology has evolved, and of course our views on the urgency of a fossil free future have changed dramatically in recent decades. It is true that for the transition to succeed we need every carbon free energy source we can get. But we also need a source that is available come rain or shine. And that is nuclear energy.”

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić congratulated the organisers for holding the summit, which, he said, was "much more important than many meetings and gatherings bureaucratically organised just to see each other and not to do things".

Other key speakers included Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, Bulgaria's Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Czech Republic Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Finland's Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico, Slovenia's Prime Minister Robert Golob, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar, Turkey's Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, and Japanese Parliamentary vice minister for foreign affairs Masahiro Komura.

Four panel sessions covered topics that included maintaining and expanding nuclear capacity, technology advancements, fuel cycle innovations and facilitating an equitable clean energy market through financing mechanisms. Melanie Nakagawa, Chief Sustainability Officer at Microsoft, spoke on the importance of driving clean electricity demand through corporate partnerships. “The role we play as a technology company is to be a demand signal to all the carbon-free power technologies including emerging technologies, from SMRs to advance reactors and fusion, including for our suppliers”.

A joint statement was also issued by industry representatives including World Nuclear Association, Canadian Nuclear Association, Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Korea Atomic Industrial Forum, US Nuclear Energy Institute, Nucleareurope, and the UK Nuclear Industry Association. The statement said that industry needed governments to provide long-term policies and clarity for potential investors, to ensure ready access to national and international climate finance mechanisms for nuclear deployment, and "promote development of the supply chain commensurate with expansion targets and continue investment in nuclear research".

Image: World leaders from 32 countries gather for the first ever Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels, Belgium