Nuclear energy no longer a taboo, WNE hears

01 December 2023

Much progress has been made over recent years in the representation of nuclear in national, regional and international debates on energy and the climate, speakers agreed at the opening session of the World Nuclear Exhibition (WNE) in Paris this week.

Grossi speaking during the opening session at WNE (Image: WNN)

"In my speech [to WNE] two years ago, I dared to say the following: 'Nuclear power might be ready to make a comeback'," noted Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency. "Today I can assure you nuclear is making a strong comeback, a very strong comeback."

He said this comeback was happening due to several factors. Firstly, there are some countries with established nuclear industries that have changed their mind on reducing or phasing out their use of nuclear energy. Meanwhile, there is a "growing appetite for nuclear power" around the world, with some countries taking the decision to construct nuclear power plants. "China, India, France, the USA, Canada, Poland. Many, many countries are now looking at nuclear power much more closely and with the greater interest," Birol said.

Energy security, environmental concerns - especially climate change - and the competitiveness of nuclear have been the three main driving forces for changes in attitudes among governments and investors, he added.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also noted there have been "a number of very, very encouraging facts that have been taking place" since the previous WNE.

"Fatih was rightly saying countries one after the other, perhaps with one exception, have been reviewing, revising, or annotating previous decisions in what I would call more than a nuclear renaissance, more a return to common sense."

Grossi said there had been some positive developments for nuclear in several countries, including the restart of several Japanese reactors, a reversal of South Korea's nuclear phase-out policy, the start of construction of a nuclear power plant in Egypt and the grid connection of new reactors in the UAE and the USA.

"All of this might indicate that we are in an extremely positive situation, but we are not," he said. "The reality is that all of these very positive developments are adding much less nuclear than what we actually need.

"For these figures to improve, for this trend to be consolidated, of course there are a number of things that need to happen and I think it is important that we face this and that we are clear about this situation. One important thing, of course, has been and will be a number of political decisions that need to be taken. Without the right political decision, of course, we may have a number of very convincing argument but nothing is going to change."

Birol said the nuclear industry has three priorities. Firstly, it should increase the capacity of nuclear power plants. "There's huge room for that and a huge appetite for that," he said. Secondly, the lifetime of existing reactors should be extended. "In my view, it is the cheapest source of clean electricity generation and I see that there is a growing appetite across the world." Thirdly, he said, there needs to be innovation, such as small modular reactors (SMRs).

On financing, Grossi said: "We are still living in an environment that is charged with, in some cases, statutory provisions for international financing institutions that prevent, black on white, prevent nuclear projects to be financed. This has definitely to change."

Birol echoed this by saying that because nuclear power was capital intensive the sector is unlikely to grow without government support. "There should be genuine government support, as governments support other clean energy options." He said investment should also be facilitated by the multilateral development banks (MDB). "I do not know why the MDBs up to now did not show enough interest in nuclear investment, especially life time extensions and small modular reactors."

The nuclear sector has come a long way when it comes to its representation at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings. Speaking of COP28, starting in Dubai, Grossi said: "I can tell you that for the first time - imagine, it's been 27 cops - but never ever before, countries that use nuclear energy were ready to say it at one point. It was a taboo for the COPs. Nuclear was not something that was considered as part of a solution. And this time all the countries that are using nuclear energy are going to proudly stand together and say that for them, at the COP, that nuclear is part of that solution."

Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Market at the European Commission, also speaking in the opening session, added: "Coming here, it was so strange to see how vibrant the whole industry is. It's amazing. I would tell you that nuclear is no more a taboo, even in the European Commission."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News