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‘Without nuclear, it will be impossible to decarbonise by 2050’, UN atomic energy chief

BI Report, Dhaka || BusinessInsider

Published: 01:26, 15 June 2024  
‘Without nuclear, it will be impossible to decarbonise by 2050’, UN atomic energy chief

Photo: Collected

The issue of spent fuel, the highly radioactive waste produced by the process of producing energy in nuclear power plants, has also been periodically raised as a cause for concern.

But the image of nuclear power got a boost at the 2023 UN climate conference in Dubai (COP28) when 198 countries included nuclear energy in the list of low-emission technologies that need to be scaled up if we're to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

Ahead of an international conference on the safe management of spent fuel, UN News spoke to Rafael Mariano Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss the growth of nuclear energy and the difference the COP28 declaration is likely to make to the way it is perceived.

Rafael Grossi It's been very important, in terms of public perception, policies, and understanding.

Nuclear is already playing a big role in clean energy delivery; more than a third of clean, CO2-free energy produced today in the world is nuclear. In Europe, where I live, it’s half. So, it is already part of the solution.

The problem is that for many years, for a variety of reasons that have to do with Chernobyl or, later, Fukushima, there has been a lot of pushback and misinformation about nuclear energy.

This has reverberated in the conferences and meetings and policy gatherings about energy in general; at the UN Climate Conferences, nuclear was resisted, not mentioned, and even rejected.

The fact that nuclear energy was included alongside renewables at the 2023 Dubai conference was a major step. A number of important countries pledged to triple their percentage of nuclear in their energy mix.

I don’t think that this is a renaissance of nuclear, but a return to realism. The International Panel on Climate Change, which is a gathering of the greatest and the brightest scientists from all over the world studying climate issues, has recognized that, without nuclear energy, it will be almost impossible to decarbonize by 2050.

So, there will be more nuclear power and the IAEA, along with the UN System in general, will make sure this happens in a safe and secure way and does not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

UN News When you say misinformation surrounding nuclear energy, what do you mean?

Rafael Grossi For example, the conventional wisdom is that thousands of people died because of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Whilst it’s true that thousands of people were killed by the tsunami [that hit Japan in March 2011], not a single person died from radiation.

When you look at the statistics, you will see that in terms of mortality, nuclear is even lower than some renewable energies. Many people die in air accidents, but we don’t stop flying in aircraft. National governments have a responsibility to keep societies well-informed, and set the record straight.

There has been a certain narrative surrounding nuclear for many decades, but now there are environmental or green parties that are pro-nuclear in places like Scandinavia, which have a strong very strong tradition of protecting the environment.

This doesn’t mean that we will go 100 percent nuclear: we believe in intelligent energy mixes, where nuclear is the baseload energy. It’s very stable, it’s available come rain or shine, you can regulate it, and you can integrate it with renewables.

UN News One of the big issues that comes up at UN climate conferences is financing for developing countries. A lot of upfront money is needed to pay for nuclear power stations. Where is that money going to come from?

Rafael Grossi At the moment there is no international financing for nuclear, partly because of policies that are hostile to the technology. But that is starting to change, and international financial institutions are starting to review these policies.

We are seeing the growth of nuclear energy in the global South, from India and China to Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Bangladesh, and South Africa. Several African countries are interested, due to the development of small modular reactors, which are more affordable.

UN News the IAEA talks up the benefits and potential of nuclear energy, but you’re also responsible for nuclear security. How do you reconcile these seemingly contradictory mandates?

Rafael Grossi I would look at it differently. In Ukraine, nuclear infrastructure [the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant] has been occupied. The problem is not with the technology, it lies with the war and what is happening around it.

We have around 440 nuclear reactors operating around the world without any hiccups or problems. This is why the agency has been so proactive in Ukraine, to avoid an accident. We take it very seriously, but it is an aberration.

Like any important industrial activity, nuclear energy does carry risks. Nuclear waste is a good example: it is well managed, and the amounts of waste are limited.

After 70 years of commercial operation, there has never been a problem with waste. Compare that to the waste from fossil fuels, which is killing the planet.

UN News The IAEA has its own labs. What are the main areas of scientific and nuclear research you’re involved in?

Rafael Grossi In areas such as oncology and radiotherapy, we provide the capacity building to allow developing countries to use the technology.

Nuclear energy also provides food security through irradiation techniques that prevent harvests from rotting, allow the development of seeds that are drought resistant, and sterilize insects, lowering the threat of Zika virus, or malaria.

And, since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been working on the early detection of pathogens and zoonosis. That is the other side of the IAEA; nuclear technology for development.