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IAEA Opens Conference on Nuclear Power’s Role in Combating Climate Change

Vienna, Austria

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be difficult to achieve without a significant increase in the use of nuclear power, IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta said today at the opening of the International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power.

Some 550 participants representing 79 countries and 18 international organizations are taking part in the weeklong conference, the first on this topic to be organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Held in cooperation with the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the event serves as a unique forum for exchanging science-based information and conducting objective discussions on the role of nuclear power in mitigating climate change.

Nuclear power plants emit practically no GHG emissions or air pollutants during their operation and, over their life cycle, are the second-lowest emitting source of electricity after hydro. Currently, 30 countries operate 449 nuclear power reactors worldwide, generating 10% of the world’s electricity and one third of all low carbon electricity. In terms of emissions avoidance, that’s the equivalent of taking 400 million cars off the road every year.

Around 70% of the world’s electricity currently comes from burning fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2050, around 80% of all electricity will need to be low carbon to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels to well below 2°C Celsius.

“Making that transition will be a major challenge,” Mr Feruta said. “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.”

Mr Feruta added: “Advances being made in several countries concerning the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste may help to alleviate public concerns about the long-term sustainability of nuclear power.”  

William D. Magwood, IV, Director-General of the NEA, also made opening remarks.

“Finding the right approach to long-term, economic and reliable electricity supply is the central challenge to the decarbonization of the future global economy,” Mr Magwood said. “A vision of the future that incorporates variable renewable energy sources and cost-effective, advanced nuclear energy in a balance based on economic reality is one path to success.”

Hoesung Lee, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body responsible for assessing climate change science and advising governments on climate action, headlines a group of prominent speakers on the first day.

In a report last October, the IPCC featured four model pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold at which most experts believe the worst impacts from climate change can still be avoided. All four model pathways included increases in nuclear power generation by 2050, ranging between 59% and 501%.

Other prominent speakers include Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA); LI Yong, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); Agneta Rising, Director General of the Word Nuclear Association (WNA); and senior government officials from Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Mongolia, Morocco, the Russian Federation, United Kingdom and the United States of America. Heads of relevant international organizations such as Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) of the OECD, have sent messages to contribute to the event.

The conference 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.

“The world urgently needs solutions to climate change,” said Conference President Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. “Nuclear power is already making an important contribution and can play an increasing role in the future.”

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