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IEA endorses nuclear power as key to achieving global clean energy goals

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By Colin Hay - 
International Energy Agency IEA HALEU nuclear energy power

At its annual meeting overnight, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has declared its support for countries choosing nuclear power.

In a communiqué from members attending the 287th Meeting of the IEA governing board at ministerial level – including Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen – the IEA stated that countries that opt to use or support the use of nuclear energy recognise its potential as a clean energy source that can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, address the climate crisis and improve global energy security.

“These countries recognise nuclear energy as a source of baseload power, providing grid stability and flexibility and optimising use of grid capacity, while other countries choose other options to achieve the same goals,” the meeting attendees declared in the joint release.

The IEA has previously stated that nuclear energy, with around 413 gigawatts (GW) of capacity operating in 32 countries, is contributing to the goal of reaching net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century.

It says nuclear is achieving this by avoiding 1.5 gigatonnes of global emissions and 180 billion cubic metres of global gas demand a year.

“While wind and solar photovoltaic are expected to lead the push to replace fossil fuels, they need to be complemented by dispatchable resources.”

“As today’s second-largest source of low emissions power after hydropower and with its dispatchability and growth potential, nuclear – in countries where it is accepted – can help ensure secure, diverse low emissions electricity systems.”

Global electricity impact

The IEA has also identified nuclear power as an important low-emission source of electricity, providing about 10% of global electricity generation.

“It can complement renewables in reducing power sector emissions while also contributing to electricity security as a dispatchable power source [and] is also an option for producing low-emission heat and hydrogen.”

The IEA has called for increased efforts to get nuclear power on track with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

“Lifetime extensions of existing nuclear power plants are one of the most cost-effective sources of low-emission electricity and there have been several positive policy developments to take full advantage of these opportunities including in the United States, France and Japan,” it says.

It has also called for additional efforts to accelerate new constructions.

8GW of new nuclear capacity was brought online in 2022 but the Net Zero Scenario calls for over four times as much annual deployment by 2030.

“Support for innovation in nuclear power, including small modular reactors (SMRs), will also help expand the range of low-emission options and widen the path to net zero power.”

HALEU fuel option

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says the use of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel can help power the uptake of technologies like SMRs.

In a recent report, it said any advanced reactor designs including SMRs will require HALEU fuel, which ranges from 5 to 20% of uranium-235, beyond the level that powers most nuclear power plants in operation.

“HALEU fuel will enable smaller designs, longer operating cycles and increased efficiencies,” said Olena Mykolaichuk, director of the Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology at the IAEA.

“However, in order to reap the full benefits of HALEU fuel, some countries are boosting production capacity to ensure that sufficient supply is available, which will be critical for SMR deployment.”

The IAEA notes that the US Department of Energy has invested in the domestic production of HALEU fuel, through a demonstration program based in Piketon, Ohio.

However, the US nuclear industry has warned that the deployment of some SMR designs may be delayed by years due to the lack of HALEU.