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Speech made at the IAEA International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power

Agneta Rising, Director General, World Nuclear Association


Ladies and Gentlemen

It is fantastic to be here at the IAEA, to have this climate change conference right now, and I thank the acting Director General, Cornel Feruta and the Deputy Director General, Mikhail Chudakov.

It is absolutely the right time; it is an important meeting with factual and scientific content. I’ve seen the programme and gone through and looked at everything: it is excellent.

Over the course of this conference we will hear about future technologies. We have already heard about climate change. I will concentrate on what is happening now.

I come from World Nuclear Association; I’m representing the global nuclear industry. Many other organizations here are representing governments. It is, I think, timely and good to have industry talking about its experience and what the industry can do.

World Nuclear Association has 184 members, in 43 countries. The global nuclear industry is committed to delivering what it needs to do to save our planet from climate change. Our technology is ready, our supply chain is ready and our people are ready.

But to achieve the targets, to have success, we also need support from governments; otherwise the nuclear option will maybe fade away or not deliver its full potential.

We see that nuclear is moving higher up the agenda. I would like to give some examples as further evidence that nuclear is now central and included in all discussions on the issues of energy and climate.

One initiative that has been running for the last two years is the Nuclear Innovation for a Clean Energy (NICE) Future initiative, established by three governments – US, Canada and Japan – and now with many other governments supporting this programme. We will hear more about it later today.

We have heard already today the views of the IPCC on the role of nuclear energy in combatting climate change.

I should also mention that UNECE has had its first nuclear session. They are working with the Sustainable Development Goals, especially on energy, and nuclear is included also here for the first time. And UNECE has had their flagship programme, “Pathways to Sustainable Energy”, where the nuclear industry is working together with the UNECE to contribute information on the technology options, specifically nuclear, and also in collaboration with UNECE, IAEA and NEA, the role of nuclear energy in sustainable development on entry pathways, so this is work that’s ongoing.

The IEA has published earlier this year its first nuclear report in 18 years. The report “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System”, launched in May this year, identified that a failure to invest in existing and new nuclear plants in advanced economies would have negative implications for emissions, for costs and for energy security.

The IEA report also concluded that strong policy support is needed to secure investment and there is a need to reform policies to ensure competition on a level playing field. In the view of the IEA, electricity markets should value the clean energy and energy security attributes of low-carbon technologies, including nuclear power. Licensing processes should support new construction by not leading to project delays and cost increases that are not justified by safety requirements.

Also this year, the World Energy Council published a scenario report on nuclear energy. In all of their scenarios nuclear energy increases. The report concludes that nuclear energy is one of the most cost-effective sources of energy in many countries and that nuclear energy contributes to clean low-carbon energy system stability, and this is not currently valued and compensated for, because usually only generation costs are compared.

Mr Lee, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just given an important presentation in which he talked about how we need to have a rapid energy transition and we need also to have scalability.

Mr Lee mentioned that in the many scenarios reviewed by the IPCC nuclear energy increased on average by two and a half times. He pointed out that the amount of nuclear in the scenarios ranged from negligible to a ten-fold increase. I would like to pick the middle ground and talk about the representative middle-of-the-road scenario. In this scenario nuclear increases five times. This is a scenario where there is minimal disruption to life, it’s not that everybody has to go with a solar-powered sailing boat from Europe to the US – there are the commonly used ways to travel. The scenario allows us to keep our modern lifestyle, but nuclear would have to do a lot more to electrify those new processes and systems. And of course then you need to have a lot more nuclear, increasing by five times, there would be roughly 25% nuclear in the generation mix by 2050.

25% nuclear electricity share – that is the expected future role of nuclear energy, but we are seeing that today nuclear is already contributing. Nuclear energy is contributing a lot – specifically because it is low-carbon and there are not so many low-carbon options out there supplying so much electricity.

But how will the future look? I think that it was well expressed by Mr Lee: the future is an opportunity. It is not written, it’s up to us and it’s up to us to take action.  

One example of a country that has already taken action is France. France in the mid-1970s was heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its electricity generation, with only a little hydro and nuclear. From that point France decarbonized by building nuclear power plants. Now the electricity sector in France has been decarbonized, whilst meeting a substantial growth in demand by adding even more nuclear energy.

Some might say “Oh, that was the 70s and 80s; we can’t do this today!” Of course we can! We can do it again and we can do it even better.

Nuclear energy gives rapid, large-scale, long-lasting decarbonization – you don’t have to build your plant again only a few decades later because these plants will most likely run for 80 years.

Today nuclear power plants have capacity factors around 80% as a global average. Interestingly, new reactors with only a couple of years operating experience achieve capacity factors over 80%, as do reactors that are 45, 50 years old.

When you build a nuclear power plant you are building a very big machine with a large electricity output and it operates 24/7, irrespective of weather or seasons.

And then some might say “No, no, no, construction times are so long we cannot have nuclear energy”.

Of course we can! We need to check the facts. If we look at the 90 reactors that have started operating from 2000 to today, typically the construction time is 5-7 years. But also, of those 90 reactors, 27% were built in less than five years. So nuclear is fast, it is rapid, it is scalable and it is long-lasting.

A lot of reactors have come online since 2016 and many more will before the end of 2020, we expect 47 in total. It is important to note that these 47 reactors are based on 20 designs, the smallest one 35 MWe, the largest one 1720 MWe. Nine of these designs are built for the first time. These reactors are being built in 11 countries, two of which are newcomer countries.

It is absolutely crucial that we have more newcomer countries. The professional support IAEA provides in assisting and supporting countries in what is needed in their infrastructure development is very important because we all support newcomer countries to get access to clean, reliable and affordable electricity for their people.

The global nuclear industry has set a Harmony goal to supply 25% of global electricity before 2050. That is roughly one thousand gigawatts of new nuclear capacity. We will need this additional nuclear generation to make possible a cleaner, reliable energy mix for all of us.

You might think this is a hard task. And it is, it is ambitious, but it is also feasible.

Over the 20 years leading up to 2014 we were adding an average of 5 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity per year. In 2015, it doubled, and we have been around this level – that is 10 GWe per year – since.

We can say the nuclear industry has been able to double its new build rate. But to meet the Harmony goal we will need to double and even triple that build rate again. This the industry cannot do on its own, here is the opportunity, and in fact, requirement for governments, to give policy support.

If governments do this, it will be possible. In the mid-80s the nuclear industry was adding more than 30 big reactors per year.

The Harmony programme is the framework of action that the nuclear industry is working on and this is to reach out to key stakeholders, to understand the options and potential of nuclear and what needs to be done to make use of this potential.

We urgently need to create a level playing field. Nuclear energy has to be treated on equal opportunity with other generation options and recognized for its value as a reliable and resilient low-carbon energy provider.

This is an important target; yes it is a very important target requiring action now. Dozens of well-performing reactors around the world are at risk of early closure because of failing markets.

In many countries the governments have left it to the markets to sort all the complex issues related to energy and climate policy. Markets will not sort out these things. They have to be sorted out by governments putting the right frameworks in place.

As Acting Director General Feruta said, nuclear delivers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But the plants are not getting paid for the reliable nature of their supply. And that’s why very productive and beneficial reactors might have to close down.

We need to increase decarbonisation and we need to increase electrification at the same time. We need electric vehicles, we need to have heat, industrial processes and desalination – all these things need more electricity, and it will have to be clean low-carbon electricity.

Sweden was the fastest in the world in terms of adding nuclear capacity per capita. In combination with hydro it has very low-carbon electricity. And trains are low-carbon because they all run on electricity. But it isn’t possible to add more trains to meet demand because there are insufficient electricity supplies to power them. There is not enough electricity. And yet Sweden still plans to close down two reactors soon.

When looking at the plant-level costs of different electricity generation technologies, the levelized cost of electricity (or LCOE) provides a good comparison. According to data from IEA and OECD-NEA nuclear is usually one of the cheapest options on an LCOE basis.

However LCOE as a metric has significant limitations when assessing the full costs of electricity provision. It does not internalize the costs imposed on the system by different technologies – costs that are ultimately paid for by society, or often consumers specifically. These are significant for variable wind and solar generators, and so it is vital they are considered to ensure consumers do not pay more than is necessary for their electricity.

LCOE also has limitations in the context of efforts to decarbonise and reduce the environmental impacts of the energy sector. The metric does not attempt to quantify damaging externalities, such as emissions of greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels.

This was mentioned already in the earlier presentation by the OECD-NEA’s Bill Magwood.

The system costs are low for nuclear, if not the lowest, whereas when you see the balancing costs, and utilization costs and other grid costs for wind and solar you’ll see that they add quite a lot of cost to society. China is investing in nuclear energy. China is also very advanced in solar PV and wind. When considering levelized costs of electricity, their nuclear, even today, is one of the cheapest options. And then if you add system costs nuclear comes out as even more competitive. We do need all the renewables as well, but we should look at the whole cost each incurs.

We also need to create harmonized regulatory processes. We need to provide a more internationally consistent, efficient and predictable nuclear licensing regime and to facilitate significant growth of nuclear capacity and also timely licensing for innovative designs.

I would like to quote IAEA “the variety of national regulatory requirements causes many drawbacks for the entire nuclear industry, including developers, vendors, operators and even regulators themselves. This results in increased costs and reduced predictability in project execution.”

This is very important, particularly for small modular reactors, if we are going to bring nuclear energy to new countries. Airplanes can land in different countries even if they are designed in one country. We need an analogous system where you don’t need to relicense everything when you move across borders.

We also need to create an effective safety paradigm. We should focus on the genuine public wellbeing – the health, environment and safety benefits of nuclear have to be appreciated and better valued, especially when compared to other energy sources. When you look at the safety of different forms of electricity generation, nuclear is the one with the lowest fatalities per unit of energy produced.

We can put in perspective the service nuclear provides in the electricity system with other sectors, such as transport. The world’s transport system is responsible for a lot of dangerous gaseous emissions, including carbon dioxide. Nuclear generation avoids the emissions of more than 2,500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide yearly, compared to coal-fired generation. That’s equivalent to removing 400 million cars from the world’s roads.

Nuclear reactors, they are the low-carbon backbone of the electricity system that operate in the background day-in and day-out, often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. They are the silent giants we rely on daily.

Nuclear energy and nuclear technologies meet Sustainable Development Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 13 (climate action), and support many other SDGs.

I would like to mention one thing in addition; it was from the Ministry of Energy in United Arab Emirates, where the World Energy Congress was hosted just over a month ago. They said “yes, we know that nuclear energy will give us low carbon electricity. But it’s not only that, it will give us jobs – interesting jobs – and a lot of economic growth.  Thanks to what we are doing in the UAE we now see that our companies in the supply chain are getting to ‘nuclear quality’ – they have stepped-up in order to be suppliers to the nuclear projects. And now they have the quality to act on the world stage and export. So they see significant economic development”.

So I am now turning to you, we have now been able to double the number of reactors that we are putting onto the grid, but we now need to triple from here. We need governments to take this opportunity, make use of the support the IAEA is giving, make use of all the information and experience there is in the nuclear industry.

As I said, the supply chain is ready, and governments must take action to allow the nuclear industry to deliver the Harmony goal, to enable the world to meet the climate challenge.

Thank you very much.


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