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What is Net Zero? What is the Role of Nuclear Power and Innovations?

Joanne Liou

In the pursuit of a sustainable and climate-resilient future, achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has emerged as a target around the world. Accomplishing net zero means either utilizing technologies that do not emit any GHGs — such as renewables, hydropower and nuclear power — or allowing some levels of emissions and removing an equal amount from the atmosphere through carbon capture or other technologies.

“There is consensus within the climate community that, to ensure global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, the energy system, which is the main source of GHG emissions, needs to be carbon neutral. This means no emissions, or net zero,” explained Henri Paillere, Head of the Planning and Economics Studies Section at the IAEA. The 2015 Paris Agreement — an agreement adopted by 196 countries — aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Nuclear power, renowned for its low carbon footprint and reliable energy generation, emerges as a key player in the clean energy transition.
Henri Paillere, Head, Planning and Economics Studies Section, IAEA

There is also scientific consensus that human activity is the main driver of climate change. Burning fossil fuels and clearing land and forests, including mangroves, generates GHGs such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap heat and lead to higher temperatures. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels and global temperature changes underscore the urgency to transition to a carbon-neutral society.

Nations worldwide have committed to reducing their GHG emissions to curtail their impact and address the climate crisis. “Achieving net zero requires a multifaceted approach that includes reducing fossil fuel consumption and increasing reliance on clean energy sources,” Paillere said. Nuclear power provides 10 per cent of the world’s total electricity and one quarter of its low carbon supply, according to the World Energy Outlook 2022 published by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“Nuclear power, renowned for its low carbon footprint and reliable energy generation, emerges as a key player in the clean energy transition,” Paillere added.

An innovative path forward

Innovations in the nuclear industry will be critical for harnessing the full potential of nuclear power towards net zero goals. Novel reactor designs are entering the scene along with new modular manufacturing methods, all of which provide opportunities and challenges for deployment. The IAEA’s Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative is finding common ground among regulators, designers, operators and other stakeholders to support the safe and secure deployment of these advanced reactors, including small modular reactors.

However, the prospects for nuclear power depend not only on innovations in reactor technologies but also in manufacturing processes, the security of fuel supply, spent fuel solutions and other factors. There are already examples of how innovations, such as artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing, are paving the way for safe and sustainable solutions that could support cost savings and improve the economics of operating nuclear power plants.

While wind and solar are variable energy sources that depend on the weather and time of day, nuclear power plants are dispatchable sources of energy — they can adjust their output according to electricity demand. The potential for hybrid energy systems that unite nuclear and renewable power sources address the need for both grid flexibility and emission reduction, while optimizing financial resources. Additionally, the expanded use of nuclear power for non-electric applications, including district heating, hydrogen production, desalination and heat for industrial processes, offers options to reduce emissions.

In the quest for net zero, the IEA argues that nuclear is well positioned to help decarbonize electricity supply and that less nuclear power would make net zero ambitions more expensive and harder to achieve. To harness the power of nuclear energy in the transition to net zero, the IAEA launched the Atoms4NetZero initiative. The initiative seeks to inform policy makers and decision makers on the potential way forward for nuclear power as the reliable backbone of clean, affordable, resilient and more secure energy transitions. As of August 2023, there are 410 nuclear power reactors in operation totalling more than 368 000 MW(e) in installed capacity in 31 countries. In addition, 57 reactors are under construction in 17 countries, including 3 countries that are building their first nuclear reactors.

The global shift towards nuclear power was evident last year at the 2022 IAEA General Conference. A record number of 51 countries promoted nuclear power’s role in achieving their goals for climate change mitigation, energy security and sustainable development.

“The climate crisis and the energy crisis have prompted more countries to look to nuclear power as part of the solution, with public opinion polls all over the world showing an increasing acceptance rate for it,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in his statement to the Conference. “The unique attributes of nuclear power as a safe, secure and reliable energy source are crucial to the world’s green transition.”

September, 2023
Vol. 64-3

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