World Energy Outlook 2021: Nuclear innovation needs to accelerate

October 18, 2021, 6:43AMNuclear News
Nuclear power capacity by scenario, 2020–2050 (STEPS: stated policies scenario, APS: announced pledges scenario, NZE: net-zero emissions by 2050 scenario). (Graphic: IEA World Energy Outlook 2021)

The International Energy Agency released its flagship report, World Energy Outlook 2021, on October 13, “at a time when policymakers are contending with the impacts of both climate change and volatile energy markets” and ahead of the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which begins October 31. With a net-zero emissions by 2050 (NZE) scenario that calls for nuclear power capacity to almost double by 2050, the report acknowledges that rapid development of advanced nuclear technologies could expand opportunities for nuclear energy to provide low-carbon electricity, heat, and hydrogen.

Nuclear’s outlook: Unsurprisingly, the report states that “the outlook for nuclear power depends on decisions yet to be made about both existing reactors and new construction.” Based on announced plant projects, nuclear power capacity could expand by over 10 percent by 2030 (offset by retirements of aging reactors) in the announced pledges scenario, with 25 countries completing new reactors. If the IEA’s NZE scenario is followed, nuclear power output could increase by another 15 percent by 2030.

Prospects for nuclear power beyond 2030 depend on progress made in the present decade. “There are over 100 GW of planned projects that have not yet broken ground,” the report states. “There is more uncertainty about the pace of retirements for existing reactors, with many aging reactors in the United States, Europe, and Japan in need of additional investment (and new regulatory approvals in some cases) to extend their operational lifetimes.” In addition, “Advanced nuclear power technologies such as small modular reactors expand opportunities for nuclear to produce low-emissions electricity, heat, and hydrogen.”

Innovate and accelerate: Rapid development of clean energy technologies is especially critical in the IEA’s NZE scenario. “Innovative nuclear power technologies, such as small modular reactors, could offer shorter construction and approval times for new capacity,” the report states. Innovation could also expand opportunities for nuclear power beyond electricity—for example, for heat and hydrogen production—“but innovation efforts need to be accelerated to improve their prospects,” the report cautions.

“The time from first prototype to market introduction in the NZE for technologies such as solid-state batteries, small modular nuclear reactors, ammonia-fueled ships, or direct air capture, on average, is 20 percent faster than the fastest energy technology developments in the past and around 40 percent faster than was the case for solar photovoltaics. The speed at which new technologies are developed is crucial: almost half of the emissions reductions needed in 2050 in the NZE come from technologies that are today at the prototype or demonstration state.”

Net-zero by 2050 scenario: Nuclear generation worldwide would need to nearly double by 2050 under the IEA’s NZE scenario, from 2,692 TWh in 2020 to 4,714 TWh in 2050, with most new capacity added in emerging market and developing economies and most plant retirements occurring in advanced economies.

Under the same NZE scenario, renewable wind and solar energy would expand to 48,436 TWh. Importantly, the cost of utility-scale battery storage is not included in the IEA’s cost estimates for new wind and solar installations.

“Such a system will need to operate very flexibly, enabled by adequate capacity, robust grids, battery storage, and dispatchable low-emissions sources of electricity (like hydropower, geothermal and bioenergy, as well as hydrogen and ammonia-fired plants, or small modular nuclear reactors),” the IEA’s report states. “This kind of system will also require digital technologies that can support demand-side response and securely manage multidirectional flows of data and energy.”

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