The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released its annual outlook for nuclear power in the coming decades, increasing its global growth projections for a third year. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced the new projections, contained in the 137-page annual report “Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050”, during the opening of the IAEA’s 2nd International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power 2023: Atoms4NetZero in Vienna.
In both its high and low case scenarios, the IAEA now sees a quarter more nuclear energy capacity installed by 2050 than it did as recently as 2020, underscoring how a growing number of countries are looking to this clean and reliable energy source to address the challenges of energy security, climate change and economic development.
“Climate change is a big driver, but so is security of energy supply,” Grossi said. “Many countries are extending the lifetime of their existing reactors, considering or launching construction of advanced reactor designs and looking into small modular reactors (SMRs), including for applications beyond the production of electricity.”
In the high case scenario, nuclear installed capacity is seen to more than double by 2050 to 890 GWe compared with today’s 369 GWe. In the low case, capacity increases to 458 GWe. Compared with last year’s outlook, the high and low cases have risen by 2% and 14%, respectively.
In 2021, the IAEA revised up its projections for the first time since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan. Since the 2020 outlook, the high case projections to 2050 have now increased by 178 GWe, a 24% increase. The report’s low case projections have seen even higher growth of about 26%.
Amid a rapidly transforming global energy landscape, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical situation, and military conflict, the significant increase in the capacity forecast underlines how more countries view nuclear energy as a reliable low carbon energy source. The report also reflects nuclear power's importance in ensuring energy security to prevent future fluctuations in availability and prices.
Despite the optimistic outlook, challenges inherent in climate change, financing, economic considerations, and supply chain could still hamper the industry’s growth. International collaboration and other efforts are underway to overcome these obstacles, including the IAEA’s Nuclear Harmonisation and Standardisation Initiative (NHSI) to facilitate the deployment of safe and secure SMRs. However, the report says much remains to be done to achieve a fair and enabling investment environment for new nuclear projects.
“‘Nuclear energy or renewables’ is a false narrative,” Director Grossi said. “Such false narratives are to the detriment of everyone, especially when it comes to achieving a fair and enabling investment environment. We are not at a level playing field yet. To get there, decisions need to be made from a technologically agnostic view that is based on science, fact and reason.”
Since it was first published over 40 years ago, the IAEA projections have been continually refined to reflect an evolving global energy context. Over the past decade, nuclear power development has remained within the range of projections described in prior editions of the annual report.
The publication is organised into world and regional subsections and starts with a summary of the status of nuclear power in IAEA member states as of the end of 2022 based on the latest statistical data collected by the IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System. It then presents global and regional projections for energy and electricity up to 2050 derived from two international studies: the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2022 and the US Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2021.
The nuclear electrical generating capacity estimates are derived using a country by country ‘bottom-up’ approach. In deriving these estimates, the group of experts considered all operating reactors, possible licence renewals, planned shutdowns and plausible construction projects foreseen for the next several decades. The experts build the estimates project by project by assessing the plausibility of each considering a high and low case.
The assumptions of the low case are that current market, technology and resource trends continue and there are few additional changes in explicit laws, policies and regulations affecting nuclear power. This case was designed to produce a ‘conservative but plausible’ set of projections. The low case does not assume that targets for nuclear power in a particular country will necessarily be achieved.
The high case projections are much more ambitious “but are still plausible and technically feasible”. The high case projection is not intended to reflect a net zero carbon emissions ambition. It does not assume a specific pathway for energy system transitions in the different countries but integrates the expressed intentions of the countries for expanding the use of nuclear power.
The low and high estimates reflect contrasting, but not extreme, underlying assumptions about the different driving factors that have an impact on nuclear power deployment. These factors, and the way they might evolve, vary from country to country. The estimates presented provide a plausible range of nuclear capacity development by region and worldwide. IAEA says they are not intended to be predictive nor to reflect the whole range of possible futures from the lowest to the highest feasible.
In light of the evolving energy landscape, with strong commitment to climate action and renewed scrutiny of energy supply security, a number of member states “have revised their energy policy towards nuclear, leading to decisions for the long-term operation of existing reactors and new construction of Generation III/III+ designs”, the report notes. There has been also an acceleration in the interest and the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) in a growing number of countries targeting both electric and non-electric applications. “These factors are contributing to government announcements in support of a larger role for nuclear energy in their energy and climate strategy.”
At the end of 2022, 411 nuclear power reactors were operational, with a total net installed power capacity of 371 GWe. In addition, 58 reactors with a total capacity of 59.3 GWe were under construction, and 27 reactors with a total capacity of 22.8 GWe were in suspended operation. Six new nuclear power reactors with a total capacity of 7.4 GWe were connected to the grid, and five reactors with a total capacity of 3.3 GWe were retired. Construction began on eight new reactors that are expected to add a total capacity of 9.3 GWe.
Total electrical generating capacity is expected to increase by about 22% by 2030 and then double by 2050. In the high case, nuclear electrical generating capacity is projected to increase by about 24% by 2030 and increase by about 140% by 2050 compared with 2022. In the low case, nuclear electrical generating capacity is projected to increase by about 9% by 2030 and then increase by about 23% by 2050. In the low case, the share of nuclear in total electrical generating capacity is projected to decrease by 2050. A reduction of about 1.7 percentage points is expected. In the high case, the share of nuclear in total electrical generating capacity is expected to increase by about one percentage point by 2050.
The report says two out of every three nuclear power reactors have been in operation for more than 30 years and are scheduled for retirement in the foreseeable future. In the high case, it is assumed that the operating life of several nuclear power reactors scheduled for retirement will be extended such that only about 7% of the 2022 nuclear electrical generating capacity is retired by 2030. This is expected to result in net capacity additions of about 90 GWe by 2030 and about 430 GWe over the subsequent 20 years. In the low case, it is assumed that about 11% of existing nuclear power reactors will be retired by 2030, while new reactors will add about 70 GWe of capacity. Between 2030 and 2050 it is expected that capacity additions of new reactors will exceed retirements by about 55 GW(e).
Total electricity production is expected to increase by about 20% by 2030 and by about 80% by 2050 compared with 2022. In the high case, nuclear electricity production is expected to increase by about 40% from the 2022 level by 2030 and by almost threefold by 2050. The share of nuclear in total electricity production is expected to increase by more than 5 percentage points. In the low case, nuclear electricity production is expected to increase by about 24% from the 2022 level by 2030, rising to 53% by 2050. Overall, the share of nuclear in total electricity production is expected to decline by about one and a half percentage points.