Mr Birol told the Partnership for Transatlantic Energy and Climate Cooperation ministerial conference in Warsaw, Poland, that if countries are serious about meeting climate targets such an effort would require the construction of 30 GW of new nuclear power capacity every years, five times higher than what was built annually over more than a decade.
He said renewables made up more than 90% of new installed power capacity globally over the last two years, but their growing share would require policymakers to think about how to integrate intermittent generation into markets. “On the days of no sun, or no wind…it’s a huge electricity security issue,” he said.
According to Mr Birol, the share of nuclear power generation in Europe could fall from about 20% to about 5% without policy changes – a trend which will bring challenges for energy systems at a time when coal will be getting phased out from the mix.
He said: “If nuclear goes down, how are we in Europe going to balance the markets, secure electricity, and keep energy prices at affordable levels?”
Nuclear faces the challenges of long construction times and high upfront capital costs, which is hampering capacity expansion, Mr Birol said, but he added that more industrial and regulatory standardisation could help improve conditions.
Mr Birol said the IEA has huge expectations from small modular reactors, which could be cheaper and faster to build, and could be flexibly used to provide industrial heat and help produce hydrogen.
He also said the long-term operation of existing nuclear reactor units through lifetime extensions is one of the cheapest way to cut down on CO2 emissions and can compete economically with any source of power generation.
In a May report, the IEA said nuclear power can make a significant contribution to building a global energy sector with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 2050, although two‐thirds of new nuclear capacity is likely to be built in developing economies, where the fleet of reactors could quadruple to 2050.
That report said nuclear output could rise by 40% to 2030 and double by 2050, though its overall share of generation is likely to be below the current 10% in 2050. It warned that staying on the path to net-zero emissions requires “immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies”.