Birol told an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discussion on nuclear power: “I don’t give them a passing grade.”
“Countries that were saying goodbye to nuclear power, they are rethinking their plans,” Birol said, adding that the IEA had been engaged in talks with both Belgium and Germany.
“We are very happy that both governments are now in the process of postponing their nuclear phaseout plans, understanding the role that nuclear plays in addressing this energy security challenge,” he said.
In addition, another group of countries is now considering extending the lifetime of their existing nuclear power reactors to respond to this challenge, which is one of the cheapest forms of low carbon power, Birol said. Still another group of countries are rolling out plans to build new reactors, including seemingly “surprising” ones such as the Netherlands and Poland as well as Japan and South Korea.
The event took place at the Atoms4Climate pavilion – the first nuclear-themed pavilion in the 27-year history of the Cop conference.
Rising Global Optimism On Nuclear
IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi led a panel of officials in a discussion on nuclear power, amid what the agency called “rising global optimism about its potential to help achieve net zero emissions”.
The IAEA said that amid the global climate and energy crises, countries around the world are showing renewed interest in nuclear power, including countries that previously had sought to phase out the technology. Driving this change is not only the need for low carbon energy, but secure and reliable energy. Nuclear power provides both.
“This is a very special moment,” Grossi said. “This is the first time in the history of the Cops that you have a nuclear pavilion, which is also a sign of the times.”
Mohamed Al Hammadi, managing director and chief executive officer of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, told the discussion that the United Arab Emirates, once a nuclear newcomer, is now a nuclear operating country, having put three large reactors at Barakah online in recent years and soon to complete construction of a fourth, which together will provide 25% of the country’s electricity.
Like all nuclear newcomers, the UAE worked closely with the IAEA throughout the process of developing its nuclear power programme, he added.
As billions of people around the world strive for economic development and improved living standards, they are going to need a lot more energy to get there, Al Hammadi said.
“When a country reaches a certain milestone in GDP growth, about $2,000 per capita, energy demand starts to move sharply higher, to then stabilise at $20,000 GDP. Today, half of the world’s population are at the gates of the $2,000 milestone, or already beyond and require more energy. Nuclear is one of the most advanced methods of meeting this growing energy demand.”
According to the IEA, nuclear power capacity needs to double by 2050 if net zero goals are to be achieved. To live up to its potential, the nuclear industry must do better to deliver its projects on time and on budget, Birol said.
SMRs Could Be Right Fit For Developing World
Innovation must also play a big role, with small modular reactors (SMRs) potentially broadening the options for more countries including in the developing world to use nuclear power as a backbone for low carbon energy systems with high shares of variable renewables like solar and wind, he added.
Financing will be a key challenge for such projects, Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the US Department of Energy said. “Export financing will be required,” Huff said, adding that “aggressive engagement on all sides if we are going to get things built on time”.
The IAEA said several other countries, such as Poland and the US, are looking to nuclear as a replacement for coal, including at or near the site for former coal-fired plants.
Poland, for example, recently announced plans to build several large reactors as a way to reduce reliance on coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Such plans can also help ensure a just economic transition to the communities that host fossil facilities, ensuring they can continue to thrive with new careers and high paying in the nuclear field.
“In Poland, when you talk climate transformation, you mean energy transformation,” Sebastian Barkowski, Poland’s special envoy for international climate and energy cooperation said. Noting that Poland gets 75% of its electricity from coal, Mr Barkowski added: “Nuclear has to find a place in the very demanding and long-term process of the energy transition and climate transition, which we have to pursue for the years to come.”
He noted that flexible SMRs could mark a breakthrough for the way nuclear power works and helps decarbonise economies. By siting SMRs close to sources of emissions, such as fertilizer factories or steel mills or for hydrogen production, they can decarbonise those industries directly through the provision of low-carbon heat.
With multiple technological innovations on the horizon and growing global demand, the nuclear industry needs to do everything it can to attract young generations of talent, with a focus on diversity across the board, if it is going to succeed, Ingemar Engkvist, chief executive officer of the World Association of Nuclear Operators said. “We need all the talent we can get.”
The UAE worked closely with the IAEA throughout the process of developing its nuclear power programme.