The International Energy Agency (IEA) ‒ which advises 30 member countries, and describes itself as "the leading energy organisation covering all fuels and all technologies" ‒ has released a report promoting nuclear power and downplaying the potential of renewables.1
The report, 'Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System', focuses on the role of nuclear power in 'advanced economies', comprising Australia, Canada, Chile, the 28 members of the European Union, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States.
The report notes the looming tidal wave of reactor closures due to the aging of the global reactor fleet ‒ it states that without action, nuclear power in advanced economies could fall by two-thirds by 2040 and the report discusses the implications of this 'Nuclear Fade Case' for costs, emissions and electricity security.
Unfortunately, the report reinforces long-standing concerns about the IEA's pro-nuclear, anti-renewables bias.2-8
It recommends government actions that aim to ensure "existing nuclear power plants can operate as long as they are safe, support new nuclear construction and encourage new nuclear technologies to be developed." And it places particular emphasis on the (alleged) importance of keeping aging reactors running for as long as possible.
The report has nothing to say about problems with nuclear waste management (other than to make the dubious claim that several 'small modular reactor' designs have inherent advantages in safety and waste management). It has little to say about reactor safety or the heightened risks of continuing to operate aging plants.9 It is silent about the weapons proliferation risks associated with civil nuclear programs. There's nothing about uneven and in some cases inadequate regulatory standards other than the throw-away platitude that "where necessary" safety regulations should be updated "to ensure the continued safe operation of nuclear plants."
The report makes any number of implausible claims in support of nuclear power. For example, it states that over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by over 60 gigatonnes. That statement is meaningless unless the point of reference is noted. Presumably the assumption is that nuclear power has displaced fossil fuels. If so, that needs to be stated, and the assumption also needs to be justified. It might have been a reasonable assumption decades ago; it certainly isn't now.
The report claims that achieving the clean energy transition with less nuclear power is possible but would require an "extraordinary effort". It also asserts that meeting international climate goals requires "massive" investments in efficiency and renewables as well as an 80% increase in global nuclear power production by 2040.
But it ain't necessarily so. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report last year warning that global warming must be limited to 1.5˚C.10 In the IPCC's low-carbon scenarios, nuclear power accounts for only a small fraction of electricity supply (even if nuclear output increases) whereas renewables do the heavy lifting. For example, in one 1.5°C scenario, nuclear power more than doubles by 2050 but only accounts for 4.2% of primary energy whereas renewables account for 60.8%.11 In another 1.5°C scenario, nuclear nearly doubles by 2050 but its contribution to total electricity supply falls to 8.9%, compared to 77.5% for renewables.12
The IPCC report states: "Nuclear power increases its share in most 1.5°C pathways by 2050, but in some pathways both the absolute capacity and share of power from nuclear generators declines. There are large differences in nuclear power between models and across pathways … Some 1.5°C pathways no longer see a role for nuclear fission by the end of the century, while others project over 200 EJ / yr of nuclear power in 2100."13
The IEA report states that the most important reason for the collapse of investor appetite for new nuclear projects in Europe and the US has been the major cost overruns on EPR reactors in France and Finland, the collapse of the VC Summer AP1000 project in South Carolina and major cost overruns on the two AP1000 reactors still under construction in the US state of Georgia. It states that the current estimated cost of those projects ‒ US$7,000 to US$8,000 per kilowatt ‒ is "roughly four times the cost estimated in 2005". But the latest estimate in Georgia is well over US$10,000 per kilowatt and the current estimate for the Hinkley Point EPR project in the UK is close to US$10,000 per kilowatt.
Given the IEA's inability to get its basic facts right, its conclusions should be treated with skepticism. The report states that "taking nuclear out of the equation results in higher electricity prices for consumers". That might or might not be true if considering the costs of paying for upgrades to extend the lifespan of operating reactors (according to the IEA, the estimated cost of extending the operational life of 1,000 MW of nuclear capacity for at least 10 years ranges from US$500 million to just over $1 billion14); it certainly isn't true for new build.
An article in PV Magazine dissected the IEA report:15
The IEA study claims if there is no further investment in nuclear power in advanced economies – and a forecast two-thirds decline in nuclear capacity by 2040 occurred as a result – around four billion tons of avoidable CO2 emissions would be produced. That calculation, however, appears based on an assumption gas or coal, rather than renewables, would replace retired nuclear capacity.
"It is a fallacy to claim nuclear will be replaced by natural gas since solar or wind, plus batteries, is less expensive," said Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University who has worked for more than a decade on modelling a 100% renewable energy world. "California, Florida, Colorado and South Australia, for example, have all selected renewables-plus-storage over gas."
Jacobson said the money the IEA is calling on governments to pump into nuclear would be better spent funding further expansion of renewables. "The IEA is irresponsible for promoting the subsidy of expensive, failing nuclear plants instead of using those subsidies to fund clean renewable energy, particularly wind and solar," the Stanford professor told pv magazine. "These will eliminate more carbon and air pollution than the nuclear they will replace, and at a lower cost."
The controversial IEA study arrived in the same week as the Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2018 report16 published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which noted the cost reductions achieved by renewables continue to defy expectations.17 The review found three-quarters of new onshore wind, and four-fifths of new PV projects due to be commissioned next year, will produce power at lower prices than the cheapest new coal options without financial assistance.
"Renewable power is the backbone of any development that aims to be sustainable", stated IRENA director-general Francesco La Camera. "Today's report sends a clear signal to the international community: Renewable energy provides countries with a low-cost climate solution that allows for scaling up action."
Previous reports by Finland's Lappeenranta University of Technology18 also contradicted the IEA's claim the global energy transition would be more difficult without investment in nuclear power. "LUT University, in collaboration with the Energy Watch Group, published two major reports that clearly document that new nuclear energy capacities are not needed for the energy transition at all," said LUT professor Christian Breyer. "Key reasons are disastrous economics, unresolved radioactive waste problems, vulnerability to terrorist attacks, remaining technical risks, limited nuclear fuels for present reactor designs and proliferation."
Breyer noted other technologies vital to the energy transition, such as power-to-X and the electrification of the heating and transport sectors require very low energy costs that cannot be met by nuclear, while the issue of renewable energy intermittency and the lack of flexibility cited by the IEA can all be managed by energy storage and other innovations. Breyer also highlighted the IEA's historic underestimation of renewable energy19 as a further problem, adding: "The report claims that less nuclear would lead to higher cost in the energy system. Given the much too high cost assumptions for renewables and the too low cost assumptions for nuclear energy in the World Energy Outlook, this may be the case for the IEA scenarios, but it violates results with real cost numbers: the real cost for nuclear energy and the real cost for renewable energy."
Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Reports said, while IEA statements that "additions of new [nuclear] capacity have dwindled to a trickle" and "most nuclear power plants in advanced economies are at risk of closing prematurely" are not far from the findings of his annual assessments, it would take more than the policy changes recommended by the IEA to revive nuclear. "The IEA's assumption that it is only a matter of political will to reverse the trend and obtain 'an 80% increase in global nuclear power production by 2040' is lacking basic evidence for industrial feasibility, and is in fundamental contradiction with the historic performance of the industry over the past three decades," Schneider said.
1. International Energy Agency, 2019, 'Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System', https://webstore.iea.org/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-system
2. EWG assessments of the IEA scenarios, http://energywatchgroup.org/studies-of-iea-scenarios
3. Gero Rueter, 26 March 2018, 'Is the IEA underestimating renewables?', http://www.dw.com/en/is-the-iea-underestimating-renewables/a-43137071
4. Gilbert, A and BK Sovacool, Jan 2016, "Looking the Wrong Way: Bias, Renewable Electricity, and Energy Modeling in the United States," Energy 94, pp.533-541.
5. Karel Beckman, 16 Oct 2017, 'Renewables: has the IEA come around?', http://energypostweekly.eu/october-16-2017-watch/#section_4
6. Michael Liebreich, 5 Oct 2017, 'In energy and transportation, stick it to the orthodoxy!', http://reneweconomy.com.au/energy-transportation-stick-orthodoxy-81526/
7. Kate Mackenzie, 24 May 2017, 'Why IEA scenarios should be treated with extreme caution', https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2017/05/24/2189189/guest-post-why-iea-scenar...
8. Rolf de Vos and David de Jager, 14 March 2014, 'World Energy Outlook hides the real potential of renewables', https://energypost.eu/world-energy-outlook-hides-real-potential-renewables/
9. David Lochbaum, 2004, 'U.S. Nuclear Plants in the 21st Century', Union of Concerned Scientists, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nucle...
10. IPCC, 2018, 'Global Warming of 1.5°C', www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
11. Table 2.6, p.2-55 in http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf
12. Table 2.7, p.2-55 in http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf
15. Mark Hutchins, 30 May 2019, 'IEA urges advanced economies to support nuclear as renewables cost continues to fall', https://www.pv-magazine.com/2019/05/30/iea-urges-advanced-economies-to-s...