Five things we learnt from the IAEA Scientific Forum in Vienna

Yoana Cholteeva 14 October 2020 (Last Updated October 14th, 2020 17:35)

This September’s IAEA Scientific Forum, part of the 64th IAEA General Conference in Vienna, leaned on a number of speakers to clarify the role of nuclear energy in relation to climate goals, along with the Covid-19-induced challenges that the generation of nuclear energy helped to overcome.

Five things we learnt from the IAEA Scientific Forum in Vienna
We look into five important takeaways from this year’s IAEA Scientific Forum. Source: Gretchen Mahan on Flickr

Some of the main topics of the scientific forum revolved around were nuclear technology innovations; advances in nuclear reactor design and construction; flexibility and security; the use of nuclear to slash industry emissions; and the need for a holistic approach to the energy life cycle.

In addition to talks, roundtable discussions, and Q&A sessions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also led by example, keeping the ecological impact of the General Conference as low as possible by hosting it in The Vienna International Centre, which is powered by carbon-neutral electricity from 100% renewable sources. In addition, the 64th IAEA General Conference had the mission of going green in all ways possible, including reduced use of paper materials and sustainable transportation.

We look into five important takeaways from this year’s IAEA Scientific Forum.

Nuclear power’s flexibility helped “maintain the lights in time of crisis”

When it comes to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the nuclear power industry, EDF group senior executive vice-president Cedric Lewandowski said that global nuclear generation has been remarkably stable during the crisis, with plant availability being ensured at all time.

“The pandemic has emphasised the crucial contribution of nuclear power to maintain the lights in time of crisis. In France, this has been possible thanks to [emergency] plans designed after the crisis of 2009,” he said.

In addition, the continuous improvements of such plans will have to be done by enlarging the scope through supply chain reactors’ maintenance.

“This has been pursued with new working procedures, factoring in the need for social distancing. Metering plant shutdowns have rapidly been re-optimised to integrate these new procedures’ demand evolution while maximising the level of firm capacity during peak load. And nuclear flexibility has shown its value,” Lewandowski added.

Giving an example of how France used nuclear to strengthen the grid during the initial months of the pandemic, Lewandowski said that this came as confirmation that French nuclear reactors can sustain the changes forecasted in the next decades while securing a reliable low-carbon electricity mix.

“During the lockdown, French electricity consumption went down by about 15%, generation was ensured by hydro and nuclear plants with more or less renewables. The flexibility of EDF’s nuclear fleet has been precious. The number of flowed variations of reactors has increased by 50%. Reaching the levels, that we plan to live by 2025 or 2030 with more renewables,” he said.

The rise of small modular reactors

A widely discussed topic as part of the conference was the strong interest in small units for the generation of electricity and heath from nuclear power.

This interest in small nuclear power reactors, those under 300MW, is provoked by a desire to reduce the impact of capital costs and to provide power away from large grid systems, according to the World Nuclear Association.

François Jacq, chairman of the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux energies alternatives, said that the “great social and economic distress” caused by the Covid-19 outbreak has led to governments having to implement policies that “further strengthen our resilience in response to health hazards, [and] all those resulting from climate change.” In addition, the need for strong political and financial support for research and innovation, so as to meet these challenges, has been brought to the foreground.

“This is exactly the decision made by the French government, which recently announced in its recovery plan support [to] the nuclear sector for an investment of $470m over two years, with a significant share of this amount being dedicated to a new small modular reactor project,” Jacq said.

Now, attention to small reactors is rising due to the high capital cost of large power reactors and the need to provide to small electricity grids.

Philippines Secretary of Energy Alfonso Cusi said that the evolution of small modular reactors also makes them really suitable for the off-grid, or island areas of the Philippines.

“The possibility of establishing a modular power plant in the country might come sooner. Even as early as 2027. We are awaiting the passage of the necessary legal and regulatory frameworks to pave the way for nuclear power, which is among the bills that have been certified as urgent in Congress.”

The importance of climate awareness and collaboration

As part of a global initiative intended to highlight the need for energy transition, more than €7bn will be dedicated to informing policies between now and 2030, according to  Jacq.

“The energy transition appears more than ever to be a top priority and I’m sure that this step will contribute on a solid scientific and technical basis to get political, economic, and industrial choices for the coming decades,” he added.

This strategy, as well as pointing at the benefits of nuclear use, is also focused on the development of clean hydrogen produced from decarbonised electricity, which is another important area of innovation in the long and medium-term.

Similarly, UN Economic Commission for Europe executive secretary Olga Algayerova emphasized the importance of the collective efforts of the United Nations, with all relevant agency funds and programmes to communicate priorities during the transition.

In addition, she said that “the nuclear industry must address its cost competitiveness, its safety directives, and its communications challenges” in order for the use of small modular reactors for industrial applications, or heating services to become more accessible.

“I already see the development of best practice standard protocols and investment guidelines that the industry needs in the transition to a clean sustainable future,” she concluded.

The need for rapid tech advancement

A big part of the conference was dedicated to innovation and the need to keep developing nuclear technologies in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives.

World Nuclear Association director general Agneta Rising said: “Innovation is of course key for creating the nuclear plants of tomorrow. This will not only provide electricity, but also a range of other energy applications, such as domestic heat and high-temperature industrial processes.”

As the need for more efficient energy technologies arises, their role is expected to become essential in the next two decades.

“Notable examples are: the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov, which is supplying both heat and power to remote Arctic communities, the Chinese high-temperature reactor, which will start operating within the next year or two, and the new US scale reactor, which design is expected to receive certification approval in September this year,” Rising said.

While smart technologies such as Sellafield’s VR modelling software, and Carnegie Mellon University’s drones and humanoid robots, used to tackle nuclear waste in decommissioning, are on the rise, such whole system innovations have the potential to reshape the industry.

“Nuclear is mature, reliable, affordable, and in need of innovative policy to fast track the deployment of large-scale reactors to meet the increasing demand for clean electricity,” Rising concluded.

Energy efficiency “more important than just increasing renewables”

Another notable concept is the idea of optimising the use of renewable energy sources and improving carbon emissions traceability while growing the number of renewable technologies.

In this way, companies, organisations, and even households could have a clear idea of the carbon emissions they produce on a daily basis, which can improve environmental consciousness and accountability.

Institute for Climate Energy and Society researcher Gerfied Junmeier said: “I’m strongly convinced that we have to put more efforts in the energy efficiency of our system, and not only provide more renewable energy.”

Part of this impact-tracking strategy is the idea of life cycle assessment to properly account for the production of emissions.

Junmeier suggests that the first factor is awareness of “how much greenhouse gas emissions you emit to provide a certain amount of energy,” the second – how much energy do you need to provide a service or product, and the third – how many services and products are provided per capita.

“We have to apply life cycle assessment, because this is the method to really describe environmental effects, especially greenhouse gases of different products and services, as life cycle also focuses on the production,” he added.

“It also includes the operation and the end life of the system to then see what environmental effects have occurred, and this is a more or less an international consensus – if we talk about environmental effects, we have to apply life cycle assessment.”