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IAEA Director General Grossi tells Energy Forum “Nuclear and Integrated Energy Systems are Key for Net Zero”


IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the panel discussion "Taking stock: assessing progress towards net zero" at the International Vienna Energy and Climate Forum. (Photo: D. Candano Laris/ IAEA)

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi emphasized the importance of nuclear energy in helping countries reach their net zero goals in a panel with members of the renewable energy community at the International Vienna Energy and Climate Forum on 2 November 2023. The Director General shared the stage with the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and Special Representative of the Secretary General, United Nations, Damilola Ogunbiyi, and the Executive Director of Student Energy, Helen Watts at Vienna’s historic Hofburg Palace.

Mr Grossi noted that in Europe, where the Forum was being held, half of the clean energy produced was from nuclear.

“Nuclear energy is currently one of the most efficient and important producers of clean energy … This is not a ‘possibility’ or a goal to be achieved in the future. It is happening right now as we speak,” Mr Grossi said. He added that there is an increasing awareness about integrating nuclear energy in “intelligent partnerships with renewable energies, with hydro and with other forms of energy.”

Co-organized by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the Austrian Government and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the Forum aims to bring clean energy stakeholders together to accelerate the progress of the global energy transition to meet net zero goals.

Net zero means reducing energy sector carbon emissions to zero by around the middle of the century in order to limit the increase in global average temperatures to under 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as pledged in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Mr Grossi highlighted the availability of practical solutions for this “existential [climate] problem,” saying that nuclear science and technology is already here and benefiting the world: “We need to go to the toolbox and take the tools that are available to us; look at the facts, use the solutions we have, and integrate them in an intelligent way.”

Practical solutions on the road to net zero

One of the most cost effective paths for decarbonizing electricity production is to safely extend the lifetime of existing nuclear power plants, according to the International Energy Agency.

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are another available tool for decarbonization. With lower upfront costs and greater deployment flexibility, SMRs are emerging as a clean and modern energy option for  developing countries. SMRs can provide a steady backbone for reliable and resilient low carbon power grids, and are also capable of producing clean hydrogen and lowering the carbon footprint of seawater desalination. The IAEA’s Platform on SMRs and their Applications supports countries in all aspects of SMR development, deployment and oversight. The IAEA’s Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative has been designed to assist countries in getting SMRs from design and development to the market safely and efficiently.

“Energy access is not [typically] seen as a climate mitigation issue, but it should be,” Ms Ogunbiyi said at the panel.

Ms Watts reiterated the importance of “meaningfully” including young people in the energy conversation to develop projects “in contexts where energy access is still the biggest priority”.

Hybrid Energy Systems: “No one size fits all”

Renewable energy derives from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed, such as sunlight and wind. Together with nuclear power, renewable sources are key to the transition away from fossil fuels. A hybrid energy system combining both nuclear and renewables can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions even more significantly.

“In energy, there is no one size fits all. What we are trying to do is to go for the best mix possible,” the Director General said, adding that in many countries, nuclear energy unlocks the possibility for a decarbonized electricity grid. “It is a baseline, solid, dispatchable, 24/7, 365 days a year source of energy that can pair very well with renewable energies and even enable them, because the intermittency of renewable energies is evident.”

To forge credible energy pathways to net zero, Mr Grossi launched the IAEA’s Atoms4NetZero initiative at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27). The initiative provides decision makers with comprehensive, data-driven energy scenario modelling that also includes the full potential of nuclear power in contributing to net zero emissions, such as helping to decarbonize industry and transportation through low carbon heat and hydrogen.

What to expect from COP28

Convening ahead of COP28 next month, the Forum offered panellists a chance to share their expectations for the upcoming global conference. Ms Ogunbiyi suggested that instead of more climate change commitments, the commitments that have already been made should be achieved. Mr Grossi noted the growing global momentum on nuclear energy, with the IAEA recently revising up its outlook for the future of nuclear power for the third successive year. “For the first time at the COP28, the countries that are using nuclear energy are going to say it openly,” he said.

The 28th UN Climate Change Conference will take place from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The IAEA’s Atoms4Climate pavilion will showcase how nuclear technology and science are addressing the twin challenge of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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