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Energy Mix Needs Nuclear to Combat Climate Change, Panellists at IAEA Conference Said

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During the #Atoms4Climate conference, participants will discuss the prospects for synergies between nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources, among other topics. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

At a time when an increasing number of citizens are pressing for immediate climate action, every form of energy that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions needs to be considered. Only the right mix of energy sources will enable the world to reach the targets set out in the Paris Agreement to limit climate change. This is what high level speakers said today during the opening of the International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power.

“I believe [participation in this conference] reflects international recognition of the gravity and scale of the climate emergency — as reflected in last month’s UN Climate Action Summit — and a growing appreciation of the contribution that nuclear science and technology can make in addressing it,” IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta said in his opening remarks. “It is difficult to see how the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved without a significant increase in the use of nuclear power in the coming decades.”

The conference, the first on this topic to be organized by the IAEA, in cooperation with the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), brought together 550 participants representing 79 countries and 18 international organizations to exchange science-based information and conduct objective discussions on the role of nuclear power in mitigating climate change.

Panellists agreed on the importance of considering every option in the climate change dialogue, pointing out that if any technology is taken off the table, finding the solution to the problem becomes more difficult. This is true, said William D. Magwood, IV, Director General of the OECD/ NEA, particularly if we want to maintain economic growth without damaging the environment.

“The single most important issue to face in climate change is: what is the right mix of technologies and methods that will enable us to be successful?” he said.

Magwood said that nuclear power can play a large role as long as it is cost competitive. New technologies including small modular reactors, or SMRs, microreactors and Generation IV reactors may help lead the way forward, he said.

Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), said nuclear energy can help realize the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“With low levels of greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power contributes to emissions reduction today, and potentially in the future,” he said.  “Existing nuclear power plants have avoided approximately 1 to 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, when compared with gas or coal alternatives.”

Inclusive, sustainable and green energy is key to industrial development, said Li Yong, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). “I welcome the discussion at this important conference exploring the climate impact and benefits of nuclear technologies. All technological solutions are needed to attain the United Nations climate change targets and Sustainable Development Goals.”

“All the help it can get”

To stabilize the global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, Hoesung Lee, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), proposed three concurrent strategies. Namely, improving energy efficiency, increasing electrification and decarbonizing the energy supply. Nuclear power, he said, can contribute to decarbonization over the next 30 years, depending on predictions, despite the challenges it faces, such as cost-effectiveness compared to fossil fuel alternatives. “Climate change needs all the help it can get,” he said.

Representing the global industry, Director General of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Agneta Rising pointed out how nuclear power is already moving higher on the climate change agenda.

“The global nuclear industry is committed to delivering what it needs to do to save our planet from climate change,” she said. “Our technology is ready. Our supply chain is ready. And our people are ready. But, to achieve the targets to our success, we also need support from governments. Otherwise, the nuclear option might fade away or not deliver its full potential.”

From left to right: Cornel Feruta, IAEA Acting Director General; Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy and Conference President; William D. Magwood, IV, Director General of the OECD/NEA. The panellists spoke about the importance of diversifying energy sources in the fight against climate change. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Calling for government action, a level playing field, harmonized regulatory processes and an effective safety paradigm, Rising said that nuclear is the solution as a low-carbon and long-lasting energy provider. “It’s up to us and it’s up to action, and not much up to discussion anymore.”

In a video message, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) of the OECD, talked about the importance of action as well as data.

“Global emissions reached a global high,” Birol said. “There is a growing and dangerous disconnect between climate emissions reports, meetings, government intentions and what is happening in real life. There are more reports, more discussions, more speeches but emissions still increase.”

According to OECD/IEA numbers, nuclear power is the second largest clean energy source today, following all renewables put together. In advanced economies, it is number one, accounting for 18% share of all electricity generation.

“We have all the energy data at our fingertips, so we can make our recommendations and analyses based on it,” he said. “We [the IEA] think there is a role for governments, those governments that take climate change and electricity security seriously, to provide support for existing nuclear power plants, providing the framework conditions for lifetime extension, and also for all the countries all around the world to look at new technologies, such as SMRs […]. We do not have the luxury to pick our favourite technologies.”

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who was unable to attend, sent a message to the conference calling for more climate ambition. Despite low greenhouse gas emissions and health risks, the deployment of nuclear power is constrained, the statement said. “Good work has been done to remove deployment barriers, but more is needed.”

Experts this week will discuss key issues such as advancing energy policies that achieve the climate change goals; the long-term operation of existing nuclear power plants and their contribution to avoiding GHG emissions; the factors necessary to support high rates of deployment, including for advanced nuclear power technologies; public perceptions of the role of nuclear power in climate change mitigation; and the prospects for synergies between nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources.

Like all technologies, Mr Feruta said, nuclear power brings benefits and risks.

“Nuclear power has a good overall safety record. However, nuclear power is not always judged purely on the basis of scientific facts,” Mr Feruta said. “It is my hope that this Conference will contribute to an informed consideration of nuclear power on the basis of facts and, possibly, help to dispel some misconceptions.”

For more information on the #Atoms4Climate conference and to watch the livestream, click here.

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