11 October 2019: Nuclear power can contribute to reducing emissions, while helping meet increasing energy demands and supporting sustainable development, according to the first-ever conference on climate change and nuclear power. The conference was organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). Speakers highlighted safety and radioactive waste among concerns about nuclear energy.

The 2019 International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power provided a platform to discuss scientific and technical aspects of nuclear power’s role in combating climate change, as well as the opportunities and challenges of safe and secure nuclear technology development.

Speakers reported that nuclear power can contribute to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the SDGs, namely SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (climate action), by providing electricity, district heating and high temperature heat for industrial processes, generated with almost zero emissions. Nuclear power, the Conference highlighted, can also contribute to broader economic and social dimensions of sustainable development.

An IAEA press release notes that nuclear power plants release almost no emissions or air pollutants during operation and, over their life cycle, are the second-lowest emitting energy source of electricity following hydropower. Currently, 30 countries operate 449 nuclear power reactors, generating 10% of the world’s electricity and one-third of all low-carbon electricity. Nuclear power is the second largest clean energy source, following all renewables put together. In advanced economies, it is the largest clean energy source, accounting for an 18% share of all electricity generation.

Nuclear safety is a significant public concern, especially after the Fukushima accidents and terrorism-related fears.

The Conference discussed, inter alia: the ways in which nuclear power can contribute when planning for Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) updates; factors necessary to support high deployment rates, including for advanced nuclear power technologies; public perceptions of nuclear power’s role in climate change mitigation; and prospects for synergies between nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources.

Conference participants stressed that: nuclear energy must be cost competitive to play a larger role; the nuclear industry is looking at ways to cut construction times and costs and accelerate the global transition to low-carbon energy; the industry must move away from its focus on massive one-off projects; nuclear power does not qualify for financing under green or sustainable financing mechanisms from many financial institutions; and significant advances have been made regarding disposal of radioactive waste. The IAEA acknowledged, however, that there are “persistent public concerns about the potential dangers to health and the environment caused by radioactive waste from nuclear plants.”

Addressing the Conference, Hoesung Lee, Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), proposed three concurrent strategies: improving energy efficiency; increasing electrification; and decarbonizing the energy supply. He said, depending on predictions, nuclear power can contribute to decarbonization over the next 30 years despite challenges such as cost effectiveness compared to fossil fuel alternatives. “Climate change needs all the help it can get,” Lee added. According to a UN press release, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15) featured four model pathways to limit warming, which all include increases in nuclear power generation by 2050, ranging between 59% and 501%.

Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, acknowledged the large up-front costs of nuclear power. He noted the continued drop in price of renewables such as solar and wind, which makes them increasingly competitive with fossil fuel-based sources. Zhenmin said meeting capital costs of building nuclear plants will require government commitments and public acceptance. While noting the benefits of nuclear technology, such as monitoring pollution, helping diagnose and treat cancers and other diseases, helping prevent food spoilage and creating new crop varieties, which supports climate change adaptation, he recognized the need to address the “unresolved issue” of radioactive waste along with nuclear safety, which he described as “a significant public concern, especially after the Fukushima accidents and terrorism-related fears.”

The Conference convened in Vienna, Austria, from 7-11 October 2019. It featured the Millennial Nuclear Caucus, a youth event organized by the US Department of Energy, which highlighted the “crucial” role of young experts in international collaboration on global decarbonization. [UN News Story] [IAEA Press Release on Need for Nuclear to Combat Climate Change] [IAEA Press Release on Opening of Conference] [Statement by the IAEA Acting Director General] [IAEA News Story Following Conclusion of Conference] [IAEA Press Release on Youth Event] [Conference Website]