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Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition: Scientific Forum Opens

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The IAEA 2020 Scientific Forum on Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition commenced today. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

To meet climate change goals, almost all electricity will need to be low carbon, and that will only be possible if the use of nuclear power is increased, said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the opening of the 2020 Scientific Forum today. “It will require us to make use of all energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is part of the solution.”

Nuclear power is a resilient source of energy, as demonstrated even during the pandemics, and already provides one third of all low carbon electricity. With technological and scientific progress in the use of atomic energy, this year’s Scientific Forum examines how nuclear power can play a role in the clean energy transition helping countries achieve both climate and development goals.

Mr Grossi emphasized how innovation is necessary for nuclear power to achieve its full potential. “Advanced large reactors are helping to make nuclear power more accessible, sustainable and affordable. Innovations [are] being used, or considered, to optimise the operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants." 

Other sectors that rely heavily on fossil fuels, such as industry, transport and the heating and cooling of buildings, must also be decarbonised, Mr Grossi added. Hydrogen is increasingly seen as an alternative to fossil fuels, and nuclear power can produce hydrogen without generating emissions. “Hydrogen, for example, can be used to power cars with fuel cells or as a means for storing energy. It is increasingly seen as a key enabler of the clean energy transition.”

The Scientific Forum is taking place on the margins of the IAEA’s 64th General Conference over the next two days. Senior officials and leading experts will discuss the latest breakthroughs and developments of nuclear power and its role in meeting the world’s current and future energy needs. The two-day event will feature four sessions and is being held in both physical and virtual formats. For the full programme, click here.

The live streaming of the Scientific Forum is available here.

Opening session

During the pandemic, Brazil’s nuclear sector helped to sustain its energy supply, said Bento Costa Lima Leite de Albuquerque Junior, Minister of Mines and Energy.

Brazil relies on diverse sources of energy – biomass, biofuels, hydro, wind solar, hydrocarbons and nuclear. “In 30 years, energy demand in Brazil will increase up to 2.5 times, and nuclear capacity will increase about 10 GW,” he said.

The latest technical developments – from fast breeder and small modular reactors to improvements in safety and security standards – are positioning nuclear plants to integrate with other energy sources in hybrid systems. “The future is clear: Hybrid power systems that combine nuclear technologies with renewable intermittent sources for power generation and industrial heating,” Mr Albuquerque said.

In the UK, nuclear is helping to eliminate reliance on coal power and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. “In the first four months of this year, more than 60 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from low carbon sources, and a quarter of this clean electricity was generated by nuclear power,” said Alok Sharma, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in a video statement. Mr Sharma is the President of COP 26, the UN Climate Change Conference, scheduled to take place in November 2021 in the UK.

“We know that a clean future depends on decarbonizing the power sector,” Mr Sharma said, “and as a source of constant, low-carbon power, nuclear can play an important role.”

“If we make [nuclear] more affordable, we make it more accessible by reducing costs and construction times across the industry, helping low-carbon power to reach new consumers and markets across the globe,” Mr Sharma said.

The need to deploy more low-carbon power was echoed by Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). “Efforts to green the energy system have brought only modest gains. We need to deploy every technology [...]. We will not achieve our objective collectively if nuclear energy is excluded.”

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, said that nuclear is part of the solution to address climate change. He listed three main reasons:

  1. Nuclear power accounts for the second largest share of clean electricity worldwide.
  2. Solar and wind power will grow, but they can only provide intermittent energy.
  3. Nuclear power can play a critical role in decarbonizing the industrial sector.

“The scale of the challenge of addressing climate is so big that we cannot afford to exclude nuclear from the table,” Mr Birol stated. “We must work to use all technology we have.”

To position nuclear to fulfil its potential, Boris Schucht, CEO of Urenco, a nuclear fuel company operating uranium enrichment plants, pointed to areas in which nuclear needs greater support from political leaders and government officials. A policy framework that places a price on carbon and extends to all major producers of greenhouse gases is needed to create a level playing field. “Markets where carbon emissions do not have a price do not create the right incentive for nuclear power,” Mr Schucht said.

At the same time, nuclear needs to become more cost effective, he said. “We need to achieve sustained cost efficiencies,” he added, including through standardization. “It should be our homework from this conference to collaborate, to make these things happen.“

For the Philippines, COVID-19’s impact has revealed weaknesses in its energy system, further underscoring the urgency to address energy security supply, said Alfonso Cusi, Secretary of the Department of Energy. The Department is advocating for the responsible development and utilization of all energy sources, including nuclear.

Earlier this year an executive order created a nuclear energy programme committee. “The committee is expected to step in and continue collaborative work with the IAEA. This is a major step toward the realization of a Philippine nuclear energy programme,” Mr Cusi said.

In China, there are 48 nuclear power reactors in operation and 13 units under construction. Nuclear power is considered an essential part of the country’s energy mix and a reliable option to deal with climate change and to fulfil commitments to reduce emissions, said Zhang Kejian, Chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) in a video statement.

“China has adopted a strategy of innovation-driven development, placing emphasis on safe reliance, collaboration and co-sharing,” he said. “We have carried out intensive R&Ds on multi-purpose small modular reactors, speeding up [their] applications in fields of district heating, industrial gas supply, sea water desalinization, etc.”

In France, the production of carbon-free electricity is a major asset to achieve goals within the Paris Agreement framework. Nuclear will remain at the head of the French energy transition strategy, said François Jacq, General Administrator of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). “Climate challenges are forcing us to reduce our energy consumption – in particular fossil fuels – and to strengthen low carbon energy production modes, such as renewable and nuclear energies.”

A recording of the opening session is available on Facebook. Read the latest edition of the IAEA Bulletin on nuclear power. Follow the #IAEAGC on social media to get updates on the General Conference and the discussion on the Scientific Forum.

The discussion will continue in four sessions during the next two days.

Overview of the sessions

Session 1: Innovations for achieving a clean energy transition

The first session will focus on the scientific and technological innovations in the nuclear energy sector for climate and development goals. Nuclear power’s current role in the clean energy transition will also be explored, highlighting breakthroughs that support the long-term operation of reactors to complement increasing shares of variable renewable energy sources.

Session 2: Raising the bar: Nuclear energy for "deep decarbonization"

Emission reductions are necessary not only in electricity production but also in energy consumption across key industrial sectors. This session will highlight how nuclear power is able to support this “deep decarbonization” by furnishing process heat for industries and district heat for buildings, desalinating seawater for consumption in arid regions, and producing hydrogen for a variety of uses – ultimately leading the way to net zero emissions.

Session 3: Innovations for a sustainable future: Managing the energy life cycle

The externalities of nuclear energy production and their management, including storage and disposal methods for spent nuclear fuel, will be examined. Innovations in the nuclear fuel cycle will be highlighted to bring recycling to a new level and to reduce both the volume and toxicity of high-level waste.

Session 4: Advancing the clean energy transition

This session will focus on barriers hindering the greater use of nuclear power, such as financial concerns. The IAEA’s role in fostering technological innovation and in transferring this technology to its Member States will also be highlighted.

Closing session

The final session will review main conclusions of the discussions and signal future actions for Member States and the IAEA.

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