Nuclear is key to decarbonisation, says head of IAEA

Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25). (Photo: J. Donovan/IAEA)

Madrid, Spain — IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 25) today, said greater use of low-carbon nuclear power is needed to ensure the global transition to clean energy, including to back up variable renewables such as solar and wind.

The world is currently well off the mark from reaching the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. With around two-thirds of the world’s electricity still generated through burning fossil fuels, and despite growing investment in renewable energy sources, global emissions of greenhouse gases reached a record high last year.

Mr Grossi said greater deployment of a diverse mix of low-carbon sources such as hydro, wind and solar, as well as nuclear power and battery storage, will be needed to reverse that trend and set the world on track to meet climate goals.

“We should not see nuclear energy and renewables as being in competition with one another,” he said in Madrid at a side event on Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) – to ensure access to affordable and reliable energy. “We need to make use of all available sources of clean energy.”

Nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants during their operation. They are also able to operate around the clock at near full capacity, while variable renewables require back up power during their output gaps.

“Nuclear power offers a steady, reliable supply of electricity,” Mr Grossi stated. “It can provide continuous, low-carbon power to back up increasing use of renewables. It can be the key that unlocks their potential by providing flexible support—day or night, rain or shine.”

He also spoke of the role of nuclear applications that help countries adapt to the consequences of climate change which are already apparent. “Our scientists help countries to develop new varieties of rice and barley that are tolerant of drought, extreme temperatures and salinity,” he said. “We support the use of nuclear techniques to identify and manage limited water resources.”

The UN side event, entitled “Accelerating the energy transformation in support of sustainable development and the Paris Agreement”, focused on initiatives that could have a significant impact toward achieving SDG 7 goals, helping to close the energy access gap in a sustainable way and promoting climate action by transitioning toward zero-carbon energy solutions.

The event was opened by remarks from Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), Damilola Ogunbiyi, Chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Energy for All and Li Yong, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Organization (UNIDO).

Mr Grossi said nuclear power needs a place at the table where the world’s energy future is decided, and that he was encouraged by his talks with other international organizations and their willingness to work with the IAEA towards a cleaner climate.

He underscored the symbolism of coming to COP 25 just one week after taking office.

“This reflects the importance of the issue and my firm belief that nuclear science and technology have an important role to play in helping the world to address the climate emergency,” he said. “That view is shared by many of the IAEA’s 171 Member States.”