Meeting Climate Change Targets: The Role of Nuclear Energy

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Last Tuesday 3rd of May, our group attended the Meeting Climate Change Targets: The Role of Nuclear Energy webinar organized by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). The main scope of the event was devoted to explore the role of nuclear technologies and their applications toward achieving the globally recognized goal of Net Zero. While our research is focused on developing nuclear fusion as a new source of electricity for the second half of this century, the webinar provided us with an excellent opportunity to learn about the current status of nuclear energy in the present energy policy context as well as to understand the potential role that nuclear energy could have in emission reduction.

The webinar was divided into three parts. It started with brief talks from keynote speakers, followed by a main webinar presentation by Head of the Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics at NEA Diane Cameron about the upcoming NEA report, and ended up with a Q&A session.

The climate change crisis has been identified by leaders and governments around the world as one of the defining challenges for this generation and nothing short of an existential threat. In addition, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) assert that climate change has the potential to threaten the peace and security of people as well as nature and economy.

In its latest report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying. The report calls for strong, rapid and sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions with an average of 1160GW of global installed nuclear capacity by 2050. Moreover,  the International Energy Agency (IEA) has recorded that the pathway to Net Zero emissions by 2050 is quite narrow and will require massive deployment of all available clean energy technologies.

Even though a large number of published pathways have been published, there continue to exist considerable uncertainties with respect to the feasibility and costs of reaching Net Zero goal in the requested time. In particular, says Diane Cameron, “many of these published pathways depend on energy technology innovation that has not been commercialized yet and, in some cases, not even demonstrated such as a widespread deployment of carbon capture and store energies and the integrated hydrogen economy”. Also remarks that “none of the published pathways include particularly aspirational scenarios for nuclear innovation, in other words, all of the published pathways include some levels of nuclear energy deployment based on current commercial technologies”. For example, with the current policy trends, nuclear capacity in 2050 is expected to reach 479GW which is well below the target of 1160GW.

Despite the uncertainties, it is clear that the published pathways present significant challenges for the energy sector, from a technological, economic and political perspective as well as a significant growth in nuclear installed capacity. The NEA report quantifies the full potential of nuclear energy to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions reductions which could potentially contribute to avoiding 100 gigatonnes of cumulative carbon emissions between 2022 and 2050.

So far, the nuclear energy sector faces many challenges and opportunities such as key enabling conditions that both the nuclear sector and energy policy makers should address in the areas of system costs, project timelines, public confidence and clean energy financing in order to achieve the Net Zero goal.

For more details, please see the recording of the webinar on NEA’s website!

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