IEA sees growth in nuclear as world responds to energy crisis

27 October 2022

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects more than a doubling of nuclear generation by 2050, with at least 30 countries increasing their use of nuclear power, in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 scenario of its latest World Energy Outlook (WEO). The IEA said the global energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure future.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol (centre) at the launch of WEO2022, flanked by lead authors Laura Cozzi (right) and Tim Gould (left)

The global energy crisis triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine is causing profound and long-lasting changes that have the potential to hasten the transition to a more sustainable and secure energy system, according to the IEA. "Today's energy crisis is delivering a shock of unprecedented breadth and complexity," it said.

"Energy markets and policies have changed as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, not just for the time being, but for decades to come," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. "Even with today's policy settings, the energy world is shifting dramatically before our eyes. Government responses around the world promise to make this a historic and definitive turning point towards a cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy system."

The WEO's Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario (NZE) sets out what needs to be done to move beyond announced pledges towards a trajectory that would reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050. As well as this scenario, the WEO 2022 explores two others: the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), representing a path based on the energy and climate measures governments have actually put in place to date, as well as specific policy initiatives that are under development; and the Announced Pledges Scenario (APS), which maps out a path in which the net zero emissions pledges announced by governments so far are implemented in time and in full.

"For the first time ever, a WEO scenario based on today's prevailing policy settings - in this case, the Stated Policies Scenario - has global demand for every fossil fuel exhibiting a peak or plateau," the IEA said. In this scenario, there is a reduction in the use of coal within the next few years, natural gas demand reaches a plateau by the end of the decade, and rising sales of electric vehicles mean that oil demand levels off in the mid-2030s before ebbing slightly to mid-century. The share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix in STEPS falls from around 80% to just above 60% by 2050. The declines are much faster and more pronounced in the WEO's more climate-focused scenarios.

Growth in nuclear capacity

In the STEPS scenario, global nuclear output increases from 2776 TWh in 2021 to 3351 TWh in 2030 and to 4260 TWh in 2050. However, nuclear maintains its current share of about 10% in total electricity generation. This scenario requires the completion of 120 GW of new nuclear capacity by 2030, as well as the addition of another 300 GW worth of new reactors between 2030 and 2050 in over 30 countries.

In the APS scenario, around 18 GW of new nuclear capacity is added per year over the outlook period, over a quarter more than in the STEPS, but the higher level of electricity demand in this scenario means that the nuclear share of the electricity supply mix remains about 10%. In APS, nuclear generation increases to 3547 TWh in 2030 and to 5103 TWh in 2050.

In the NZE scenario, lifetime extensions in the 2020s helps limit global emissions, and an average of 24 GW of capacity added each year between 2022 and 2050 more than doubles nuclear power capacity by 2050. In this scenario, nuclear generation increases to 3896 TWh in 2030 and to 5810 TWh in 2050. However, nuclear's share of the electricity mix declines to 8% in 2050 due to very strong growth in electricity demand in the NZE scenario.

The IEA notes that while clean energy investment rises above USD2 trillion by 2030 in STEPS, it would need to be above USD4 trillion by the same date in the NZE scenario. "Major international efforts are still urgently required to narrow the worrying divide in clean energy investment levels between advanced economies and emerging and developing economies," it added.

"The continued role of nuclear power in the electricity sector relies on decisions to extend the lifetime of existing reactors and the success of programmes to build new ones," the IEA said. However, it noted that investment in nuclear power is "coming back into favour" in some countries. "There have been announcements of lifetime extensions for existing reactors, often as part of the response to the current crisis ... there is growing interest in the potential for small modular reactors to contribute to emissions reductions and power system reliability".

Commenting on the latest WEO, World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León said: "Nuclear is a cornerstone of the IEA's vision of a clean energy future. But nuclear energy has the potential to do much more than what the IEA sets out. A greater contribution from nuclear will be needed because nuclear has the potential to supply both electricity and heat, both of which will be vital to achieving full decarbonisation across all sectors."

She added: "Nuclear energy is a proven technology with many economic, social and environmental advantages. A sound and sustainable clean energy future will need to make much greater use of its benefits."

Reduced CO2 emissions

In its STEPS scenario, the IEA sees global CO2 emissions reaching a high point of 37 billion tonnes per year in 2025 before gradually reducing to 32 billion tonnes by 2050. It said this would be associated with a rise of around 2.5°C in global average temperatures by 2100, "far from enough to avoid severe climate change impacts". Full achievement of all climate pledges would move the world towards safer ground, but there is still a large gap between today's pledges and a stabilisation of the rise in global temperatures around 1.5°C.

In APS, emissions peak in the mid-2020s and fall to 12 billion tonnes in 2050, resulting in a projected global median temperature rise in 2100 of 1.7°C. In NZE, CO2 emissions fall to 23 billion tonnes in 2030 and to zero in 2050, a trajectory consistent with limiting the temperature increase to less than 1.5°C in 2100.

Publication of the latest WEO came as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Emissions Gap Report 2022, which shows that under current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the world is headed for 2.8°C of global heating by the end of the century. Despite a call for strengthened NDCs for 2030, UNEP's report finds that progress since COP26 in Glasgow last year has been inadequate.

"Amid the major changes taking place, a new energy security paradigm is needed to ensure reliability and affordability while reducing emissions," Birol said. "That is why this year's WEO provides 10 principles that can help guide policymakers through the period when declining fossil fuel and expanding clean energy systems co-exist, since both systems are required to function well during energy transitions in order to deliver the energy services needed by consumers.

"And as the world moves on from today's energy crisis, it needs to avoid new vulnerabilities arising from high and volatile critical mineral prices or highly concentrated clean energy supply chains."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News