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IAEA Climate Change Conference Opens as Agency Unveils Even Brighter Nuclear Outlook


The IAEA’s 2nd International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power 2023: Atoms4NetZero concluded in Vienna today with an appeal for a “level playing field” on energy policies and access to financing so that nuclear power can fulfil its potential in achieving climate change and energy security goals. 

The conference’s president, Ambassador Hamad Alkaabi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), brought the event to an end following a week of high-level talks involving nearly 550 participants from 81 countries and 26 invited organisations. Participants agreed that nuclear energy plays a pivotal role in addressing climate change but must overcome several challenges to achieve the large-scale deployment that several authoritative global studies say is needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 

“We must continue to push for a level playing field for nuclear energy, in terms of policies and access to financing, which can allow the technology to benefit from similarly favorable conditions that helped to deploy renewable energy technologies at scale over the last decade,” Mr Alkaabi said in his summary of the conference’s conclusions. “Long term energy policies, innovative electricity market designs and technology-neutral sustainable finance frameworks that recognize nuclear’s contribution to energy system reliability, flexibility and decarbonization are needed.” 

At the start of the conference, the IAEA released its latest annual outlook for nuclear power in the coming decades, with its projections revised up for a third consecutive year. The high case projection sees installed nuclear capacity more than doubling by 2050. That is just above the figures recently published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) for nuclear power’s required contribution to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the average increase in global temperatures to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. 

Currently, 31 countries operate nuclear power, which provides more than nine per cent of the world’s electricity but accounts for around 25 per cent of its clean electricity. Another 30 countries or so are embarking on or considering the introduction of nuclear power, with support from the IAEA. 

“We found consensus on the crucial role of nuclear energy in meeting climate targets, with emphasis on safe long-term operation of existing nuclear power plants in established nuclear markets, the need to rapidly deploy proven large-scale reactors and the urgency of bringing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) to market as soon as possible, particularly to replace fossil plants of similar size, including to meet the needs of emerging countries and for non-electric applications,” Mr Alkaabi said. 

The UAE will host COP28, the UN’s main climate change conference, starting next month in Dubai, where the IAEA for the second successive year will host a pavilion highlighting the role of nuclear energy in mitigating and adapting to climate change. “This year at COP, countries using nuclear energy will gather around the global convening point of the IAEA to state the reality: they use, they will continue to use, and they will increase the contribution of nuclear energy to the energy mix,” IAEA Director General said in his  opening remarks to this week’s conference. 

The conference kicked off with a keynote address by Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, who noted that progress on nuclear power is currently not keeping pace and pointed to Europe, where 20 years ago nuclear provided 30% of electricity but will fall to about 15% in the coming years unless national policies change. “This has a lot of implications,” Mr Birol said, “for Europe’s electricity security and how challenging it will be to fight against climate change.” 

As well as providing clean electricity 24 hours a day, nuclear power could also radically cut emissions in industry, transportation and buildings, known as the hard-to-abate sectors, which are responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power can produce process heat for industries such as cement and steel making, clean hydrogen for transport and other uses, district heating for buildings and also help address the growing global need for fresh drinking water by reducing the carbon footprint of desalinisation.  

“Nuclear power is the only technology that can produce at scale the three low-carbon energy vectors needed to reach net zero: electricity, heat and hydrogen,” Mr Alkaabi said. “Unfortunately, there is a large disconnect between what nuclear technology can deliver and how this potential is portrayed in climate scenarios that inform policymakers.”  

To help governments and financial institutions make data-driven, science-based decisions about their investments in future energy systems, the IAEA last year launched the Atoms4NetZero initiative. In cooperation with a variety of partners, it aims to provide a comprehensive energy scenario modelling service, featuring the full potential of nuclear power in achieving net zero emissions, including providing non-electric applications such as hydrogen production.  

The weeklong conference included ten high-level panels, a high-level segment, a special session, 18 technical sessions, and seven side events organized by various stakeholders. The panels focused on the role of nuclear power in the global clean energy transition, and how to enable it to fulfil its potential in that role, and mobilize multi-stakeholders, including women and young generation groups, to facilitate the global dialogue about nuclear as a sustainable low-carbon energy source. More about the conference, including the programme can be found be here



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