Taking a fresh look at the future of nuclear power

29 January 2015

Nuclear power is a critical element in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and a new Technology Roadmap co-authored by the IEA and the Nuclear Energy Agency outlines the next steps for growth in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan and the economic crisis and its effect on financing.

The new publication finds that the prospects for nuclear energy remain positive in the medium to long term despite a negative impact in some countries in the aftermath of the accident. While nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation was 10% lower in 2013 than in 2010, principally because of Japan’s 48 operable reactors remaining idle, it is still the second-largest source worldwide of low-carbon electricity. And the 72 reactors under construction at the start of last year were the most in 25 years.

Yet global capacity must more than double, with nuclear supplying 17% of global electricity generation in 2050, to meet the IEA 2 Degree Scenario (2DS) for the most effective and efficient means of limiting global temperature rise to the internationally agreed maximum.

Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy 2015 Update offers a vision of the best ways to accomplish that growth, looking at current and new technologies; the need to meet increased safety requirements and improve constructability through optimised design, standardisation and more efficient supply chains; financing options and implementation of waste-management solutions. The Roadmap also addresses the challenge of decommissioning hundreds of reactors that will reach the end of their operating life by the middle of the century as well as building the necessary infrastructure and capacity building in newcomer countries. And it stresses the importance of restoring public confidence in nuclear power.

Nuclear energy’s attractiveness lies in how it allows countries to build scalable, efficient and long-term power sources that can serve as a base to underpin other forms of low-carbon generation. Even if a limited number of countries have decided to phase out nuclear power, many more have set ambitious development programmes. For example, China plans to have a net 58 gigawatt (GW) in nuclear capacity by 2020, up from 17 GW in 2014, with a further 30 GW under construction then. But under the 2DS, total nuclear capacity should be 250 GW in 2050.

In a detailed chapter on milestones and next steps for the industry, the Roadmap investigates in-depth the current state-of-the-art Generation III technology, including case studies about construction of projects that employ its enhanced safety features and higher efficiency. But the Roadmap also looks at new options entering the market, including small modular reactors that could power smaller or isolated grids.

Major impediments to capital-intensive nuclear power are tightened financial markets, especially following the recent global economic crisis, and shortcomings in deregulated electricity markets. Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy 2015 Update examines routes for investment worldwide to 2050, looking at innovative financing schemes and other mechanisms to support capital-intensive low-carbon generation sources.

Finally, safety is an issue crucial to increased development of nuclear power. So the Roadmap examines extensively how countries are implementing the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident by upgrading existing plants to meet increased safety requirements and improving the safety culture throughout the sector. It also emphasises the need to address public acceptance concerns by communicating effectively with citizens and policy makers on issues such as safety, regulation and waste management as well as benefits of nuclear energy. Among the Roadmap’s many case studies are an overview of the World Association of Nuclear Operators’ peer review process to share best practices and improve overall safety as well as a description of the United Kingdom’s programme to develop nuclear skills to meet current and future needs based on anticipated development.

To download Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy 2015 Update, please click here.

To read the IEA Executive Director's remarks at the release of the Roadmap, please click here.

To view the presentation, please click here

To listen to a recording of the release webinar, please click here