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IAEA Projections for Nuclear Power Growth Increase for Second Year Amid Climate, Energy Security Concerns

Vienna, Austria

Photo: Tapani Karjanlahti/TVO 2022

For a second successive year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has revised up its annual projections of the potential growth of nuclear power during the coming decades, reflecting a shift in the global debate over energy and the environment amid growing concerns over energy security and climate change.

In its new outlook for global nuclear capacity for electricity generation by 2050, the IAEA has increased its high case scenario by 10% compared with last year’s report. In 2021, the Agency revised its up annual projections for the first time since Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011.

In its high case scenario, the Agency now sees world nuclear generating capacity more than doubling to 873 gigawatts net electrical (GW(e)) by 2050, compared with current levels of around 390 GW(e). That’s an additional 81 GW(e) on top of last year’s projection. In the low case scenario, generating capacity remains essentially flat.

“We are at a defining moment in the world’s transition to a more secure, stable and affordable energy future,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said. “Driven by the impacts of climate change and the energy crisis, governments are reconsidering their portfolios in favour of nuclear power. But for the high case scenario to be achieved, a number of challenges need to be addressed, including regulatory and industrial harmonization and progress in high level waste disposal.”

The annual outlook identifies climate change mitigation and energy security as key drivers of decisions to continue or expand the use of nuclear power, citing recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical tensions and military conflict in Europe as having impacted the reliability of energy systems, impeded energy flows across regions and led to significant increases in energy prices.

A number of Member States are revising their national energy policies, says the report, leading to decisions to extend operation of existing reactors and plans for new construction of advanced reactors, and the development and deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs). While a large number of reactors are scheduled for retirement in the coming years, ageing management programmes and long term operation are being implemented for an increasing number of existing reactors, with new policy measures being adopted to support their competitiveness in liberalized electricity markets.

The 42nd edition of Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050 provides detailed global trends in nuclear power by region. The report’s low and high estimates reflect different scenarios for the worldwide deployment of nuclear power. The low and high estimates reflect contrasting, but not extreme, scenarios. They provide a plausible range of nuclear capacity development by region and worldwide.

According to the new projections and assuming electricity generation will increase by 85% over the next three decades, nuclear energy could contribute about 14% of global electricity by 2050, up from its 10% share today. Coal remains the dominant energy source for electricity production but has gradually decreased a few percentage points since 1980. In recent years, the share of solar and wind has undergone a rapid increase, rising from less than 1% in 1980 to 9% in 2021.

The adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November 2021, in which the IAEA participated, has led to renewed momentum toward reaching net zero global CO2 emissions by 2050. The use of nuclear power has avoided about 70 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions over the past 50 years.

Meeting global climate commitments is reliant on energy policies and market designs to facilitate investments in low carbon technologies. For nuclear, besides the challenge of financing, regulatory harmonization and industrial standardization of designs would help with the rate of deployment of new nuclear. Progress in implementation of high level waste disposal is also needed.

The report also says that almost half of the CO2 emission reductions needed to reach net zero in 2050 will need to come from technologies that are currently under development but are not yet on the market. For nuclear, accelerating the pace of innovation and demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors including SMRs is required if nuclear is to play a role in decarbonization beyond electricity by providing low carbon heat or hydrogen to the industrial and transport sectors.

Since it was first published over 40 years ago, the IAEA’s projections have been continually refined to reflect an evolving global energy context. Over the past decade, nuclear power development has remained within the range of projections described in prior editions.

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