Ahead of the COP26 climate summit, IAEA has released Nuclear Energy for a Net Zero World. The special report highlights nuclear power’s critical role in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development by displacing coal and other fossil fuels, enabling the further deployment of renewable energy, and becoming an economical source for large amounts of clean hydrogen.
As the government, business and societal leaders from around the world prepare to gather at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on 31 October-12 November, the IAEA report lays out the reasons why nuclear must have a seat at the table whenever energy and climate policies are discussed. In addition, nine countries—Canada, China, Finland, France, Japan, Poland, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom—provided statements in the report in support of its findings on nuclear power’s contributions to climate action.
Marking the launch of the report, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi will engage in a conversation in an online event later today with Michal Kurtyka, Poland’s Minister of Climate and Environment. “Over the past five decades, nuclear power has cumulatively avoided the emission of about 70 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) and continues to avoid more than 1 Gt CO2 annually,” the Director-General said in his foreword to the report. “As we head toward (COP26), it is time to make evidence-based decisions and ramp up the investment in nuclear. The cost of not doing so is far too high to bear.”
The report demonstrates how nuclear power is vital for achieving the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring 24/7 energy supply, which provides stability and resilience to electrical grids and facilitates the wider integration of variable renewables such as wind and solar needed to drive the clean energy transition.
In addition, nuclear power as a firm source of low carbon electricity is well suited to replace coal and other fossil fuels while also providing heat and hydrogen to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors such as industry and transportation. As such, nuclear power represents one of the most effective investments for the post-pandemic global economic recovery, contributing directly to UN Sustainable Development goals on energy, economic expansion, and climate action.
A key topic at COP26 will be accelerating the transition from coal. According to the report, replacing 20% of coal generation with 250 GW of nuclear generation would reduce emissions by 2 Gt CO2, or around 15% of electricity sector emissions per year. Nuclear power can also substitute coal-fired boilers for district heating and industry.
The report also outlines how nuclear power can be a significant driver of economic growth, generating jobs in many sectors and enabling a just transition to clean energy. Nuclear power, with a 10% share of global electricity generation, already provides over 800 000 jobs. International Monetary Fund estimates show that investments in nuclear power generate a larger economic impact than those in other forms of energy, making it among the most effective actions for a sustainable economic recovery as well as the transition to a resilient net-zero energy system.
Poland is one country that plans to build nuclear power plants (NPPs) to reduce reliance on coal, which currently produces about 70% of the country’s electricity and accounts for some 200 000 jobs. “The operation of NPPs in our country will help achieve the climate neutrality objective, positively affect the economy while creating new, highly specialized industry branches, and enhance the country’s energy security,” Kurtyka, who was also President of COP24, when Poland hosted the UN Climate Conference in 2018, said in a statement in the report. “It is estimated that new industry sectors linked to renewables and nuclear power will help create around 300 000 new jobs.”
Nuclear power’s partnership with renewables will be key to driving emissions to net zero, according to the report. Because it is dispatchable, low emission, flexible and reliable, nuclear power can underpin net-zero energy mixes based on electricity, while also helping to lower the costs of the overall electricity generating system.
Non-power sectors including steel, cement and chemical production, shipping, and air transport—which together account for around 60% of energy-related global emissions—will require the deployment of heat or energy carriers such as hydrogen which must be produced with a low carbon footprint. Nuclear energy can provide low carbon heat and be used to produce hydrogen, particularly with high-temperature reactors currently under development.
The report underscores how resilient energy systems will rely on the robustness of individual generation technologies, grid infrastructure and demand-side measures. The nuclear sector is well prepared to face the challenges posed by climate change including the risks of more frequent and more extreme weather events and has developed specific adaptation measures to mitigate these risks. While the frequency of weather-related outages at nuclear power plants has increased over the last 30 years, total production losses were minor, with reduced losses over the past decade, according to data from the IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System.
The publication recommends a series of actions aimed at accelerating the wider deployment of nuclear power, including:
- Introduce carbon pricing and measures to value low-carbon energy
- Adopt objective and technology neutral frameworks for low carbon investments
- Ensure markets, regulations and policies value and remunerate nuclear energy’s contribution to reliable and resilience low-carbon energy systems
- Boost public investment and support for private investment in nuclear power, including reactor lifetime extensions, as part of “green deal” and recovery packages
- Promote diversified electricity systems to mitigate climate risks to energy infrastructure, ensuring the continuity and quality of electricity services
“The task ahead of us — limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5°C and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 — is a formidable challenge and an immense economic opportunity,” John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate for the United States of America, said in his statement for the IAEA report. “The global clean energy transition will require deploying, at massive scale, the full range of clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy, over the next decade and beyond.”