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Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2022

To achieve carbon neutrality and limit global warming to 1.5°C, energy sector investment must be scaled up and directed towards cleaner and more sustainable technologies that support climate change mitigation and adaptation. At the same time, the world is confronted with the need to reinvigorate and rebalance energy sector investment to address energy security vulnerabilities and broader sustainability challenges. Investment in nuclear power can help address these challenges.

The Climate Change and Nuclear Power report has been a publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency since 2000. Building on energy statistics and climate change scenarios from organizations like the IEA and IPCC, the report outlines the potential contribution of nuclear power to a decarbonized, secure global energy system. Each edition of the report analyzes various concerns regarding the production of nuclear power, including nuclear plant safety, waste management and investment costs, and outlines the potential of nuclear technology developments to confront these concerns.

The 2022 Edition

Including case studies and contributions from 15 international organizations and Member State government, private sector and scientific experts, the 2022 edition of this publication outlines potential role of nuclear technology in the transition to a low carbon future.

The role of nuclear energy in creating decarbonized and reliable energy systems 

The power sector – responsible for more than a third of global energy-related emissions – will require a complete transformation on the path to net zero. The phaseout of unabated fossil fuel use and integration of large shares of variable renewable technologies will pose major technical, economic, societal and political challenges. Considerable investment is needed to ensure a global fleet of low carbon generation, grid infrastructure, energy storage and adequate flexibility measures. With one of the lowest carbon footprints among low carbon technologies, 24/7 availability and the ability to operate flexibly, nuclear power can make an important contributor to the stability and security of a fully decarbonized power system and a good complement to renewable sources.

Shares of nuclear and renewable energy in the electricity generation mix and corresponding climate warming across IPCC AR6 scenarios.

The transport, industry, and building sectors make up more than half of global energy-related emissions today and rely heavily on fossil fuel use for heat applications. Twenty-seven of the world’s nuclear power plants in eleven different IAEA Member States produced 2.3 terawatt hours of electrical equivalent heat for desalination, district heating and process heat in 2021. This thermal output accounted for less than one percent of the nuclear reactors’ total electrical generation, indicating a huge potential to utilize more nuclear capacity for heat applications for future decarbonization efforts. An expanded use of non-electric applications of nuclear power such as desalination, district heating and hydrogen production can be used to reduce emissions and increase the security of supply of the global energy system.

Nuclear energy utilized for non-electric applications in 2021.

Opportunities and risks for nuclear power in building economic growth and climate resilience 

Around the world, climate related hazards are an increasing threat to all energy infrastructures, including all types of nuclear installations worldwide. Windstorms, tropical cyclones and sea level rise can have intense impact on coastal power supply and grid infrastructure. IPCC climate modelling overlaid with nuclear site locations show that nuclear plant sites located on the eastern coast of the USA are most likely to be exposed to sea level rise and severe cyclones with maximum wind speeds and heavy precipitation, whereas nuclear plant sites in eastern China, the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago may face relatively fewer extreme storms in the future.

Climate related incidents affecting nuclear facilities since 2000. (Source: IAEA (2022))

The African continent and the Middle Eastern peninsula are where some of the most severe and damaging manifestations of climate changes are expected to accelerate, putting the environment and populations at risk. Both regions will have to face systemic challenges to achieve emissions reductions, meet climate goals while satisfying fast growing energy demand to support economic development and urbanization. As a result, lower carbon power systems – potentially fuelled in large part by nuclear power – will be indispensable to meet climate goals in the region.

Exposure of the Middle East and Africa to severe manifestations of climate change.

How policy and markets can guide a sustainable future 

Despite an increasing recognition of the role of nuclear energy in meeting national climate commitments, the current market may be unable to mobilize the scale of nuclear investment needed to achieve net zero. For both climate and energy security goals, public sector financing and development of infrastructure will be necessary to fully unlock the potential of financial markets. Private sector frameworks to measure environmental, social and corporate governance can serve as one measurement of sustainable activities but vary by company and are difficult to compare. The public sector can help to guide private investment by establishing coherent, transparent guidance on which activities are compatible with long term climate and sustainability goals to effectively manage financial risk.

Faced with important decisions on how to mitigate climate change and increase security of energy supply, policymakers have turned intense scrutiny towards the sustainability of various energy technologies. Nuclear technologies, including those supporting medicine, agriculture, clean water and environmental monitoring and protection in addition to energy, can help countries meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation technologies.

Balancing the climate and energy security challenges

Climate change mitigation and security of energy supply are two of the foremost global challenges in 2022, likely requiring a complete reimagining of the world’s energy systems. This publication provides guidance on how nuclear energy can work alongside other technologies to achieve a decarbonized global economy. Nuclear energy deployment across the power, industry, building and transportation sectors can help to alleviate reliance on fossil fuels and provide flexibility services to increase the reliability of high-renewable energy systems. Noting the risks that all infrastructure will face in an increasingly volatile climate, this publication outlines some of the key mitigation measures already employed by nuclear operators and provides a roadmap for countries that seek to drive sustainable development for their growing populations. Policy and financial markets are vital to ensuring the success of meeting the climate and energy challenge.

Previous Editions

Previous editions of the Climate Change and Nuclear Power report can be found here.

Click here for interactive versions of the graphics included in the 2020 Edition.

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