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IAEA’s Atoms4NetZero Models Energy Scenarios that Include Nuclear Power’s Full Potential


The Atoms4NetZero side event took place in Vienna on the margins of the 67th IAEA General Conference on 25 September 2023.

To forge credible pathways to net zero, policy makers need comprehensive, science-based data to make informed choices about their national energy future. Yet nuclear power, despite its proven role in mitigating climate change and enhancing energy security and sustainable development, currently has a limited role in energy scenario studies used by governments and investors to chart the transition to net zero.

The IAEA’s Atoms4NetZero initiative bridges that gap by providing decision makers with comprehensive, data-driven energy scenario modelling that also includes the full potential of nuclear power in contributing to net zero emissions. Launched by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at COP27 last year, Atoms4NetZero was showcased at a side event last month during the 67th IAEA General Conference in Vienna that featured speakers from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

“Atoms4NetZero supports countries towards our goal, which is harnessing the power of nuclear energy to achieve net zero carbon emissions and energy security,” Mr Grossi said in a video address that opened the side event.  

The initiative will be a featured topic at the IAEA’s 2nd International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power: Atoms4NetZero, in Vienna next week. See the conference programme, and register to virtually attend.

“Energy modelling scenarios that are considered within the framework of Atoms4NetZero are important because, in Africa especially, we are facing a serious energy deficit situation, and our policy makers are looking at different options,” Enobot Agboraw, Executive Secretary of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), said at the side event. “They’re looking at nuclear power; they’re looking at renewables, and it is very important that they are properly informed in order to be able to make the best possible decisions. Energy modelling provides, scientifically based evidence so that they can make decisions that are not based on hearsay or emotion, but solid decisions that would enable us to address this issue of climate change and energy deficit.”

Thirty-one countries currently have nuclear power, and some 30 others are considering or embarking on its introduction. Almost half of these so-called nuclear newcomers are in Africa including Egypt, which has already started building its first nuclear power plant. The IAEA works with newcomers in supporting their development of the necessary infrastructure for a safe, secure and sustainable nuclear power programme.

Modelling scenarios incorporate real constraints countries face as they seek to build energy systems to meet their net zero objectives, according to Kathryn Huff, Assistant Secretary, Office of Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy. Constraints may come in the form of a lack of electricity transmission lines or the power system’s inability to match hour to hour supply and demand. Policy makers need modelling scenarios to accurately determine the type, quantity, scale, location and types of energy sources. “Decisions at the policy level absolutely have to be data informed,” Huff said.

Atoms4NetZero will also help assess the potential contribution of advanced nuclear reactors, including small modular reactors (SMRs), to long term national energy strategies. This includes nuclear energy to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors beyond electricity such as industry and transportation, which make up almost 60 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative will develop credible scenarios by using IAEA analytical tools such as MESSAGE, or Model for Energy Supply System Alternatives.

“We’re really excited to see the Atoms4NetZero initiative move forward,” added Huff. “We think there are going to be a lot of very interesting results to come out of that, which is important for a lot of nations.”

There are currently 58 nuclear power reactors totalling some 60 GW(e) in installed capacity under construction in 17 countries, with more than one third of them in China, the world’s leading reactor builder. Global nuclear power capacity needs to more than double by 2050 to meet net zero goals, according to International Energy Agency. Other organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have pointed to the need for an even greater increase in nuclear.

“Atoms4NetZero emissions of carbon is very important for the future,” said Zheng Mingguang, President of the Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute, which is the nuclear technology innovation and project construction platform of China's State Power Investment Corporation. “Nuclear power could do more work in this area as nuclear technology is proven and the nuclear power competence is there, and the complete supply system of equipment and materials is also established.”

In Italy, which abandoned nuclear power in the late 1980s, the current government recently set up a task force to examine how new nuclear technologies such as SMRs, which offer greater flexibility for working with intermittent renewables, can help decarbonize the country’s energy system. Carbon dioxide emissions from Italian electricity production are currently around 265 grams per kWh, almost seven times higher than the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“In the coming months, we will be engaged to develop some specific scenarios where we have to see the added value of nuclear energy for a country where there is, of course, and there will be a deeper and deeper penetration of renewables,” said Stefano Monti, President of the Italian Nuclear Association. “One of the tasks, also using the energy modelling offered by Atoms4NetZero, is to look at how to integrate nuclear with renewables.”

Beyond energy modelling for net zero, Atoms4NetZero encompasses several other areas of activity to support countries in their clean energy transition. These include expert missions to support long term energy strategy development, workshops and training for capacity building, as well as outreach and stakeholder engagement.

“Until now, energy modelling for net zero has mostly excluded nuclear power, even though it provides around a quarter of all low carbon electricity,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. “But now countries have a new tool to provide the full picture of the possible pathways to achieving our climate goals: Atoms4NetZero.”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi addressed the Atoms4NetZero side event, during the 67th IAEA General Conference in Vienna, 25 September 2023. (Photo: IAEA)

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