IAEA Data Animation: Nuclear Power Plant Life Extensions Enable Clean Energy Transition

A new IAEA data animation shows that extending the life of existing nuclear power plants significantly increases the availability of reliable low carbon power, helping to meet climate goals and the transition to clean energy by 2050.

More than two thirds of the 442 nuclear power reactors in operation are over 30 years old and approaching – or have already reached – the end of their originally envisaged operational lifetime of around 40 years. While nuclear power plants do not have a predetermined lifespan, their components do, but nearly all of them can be replaced with new parts to safely extend the plant’s operational lifetime. The operators of many of these older reactors have received permits from regulators to continue operations or are planning to apply for such permits, following refurbishments and corresponding safety reviews by authorities.

Using data from the recently released IAEA report Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2020, the animation shows how extending the global plant fleet’s lifetime by 10 years would have a multiplying effect, adding 26 000 TWh of low carbon electricity generation. That’s more than half the electricity produced in the previous 40 years by nuclear power, which took decades to reach its current output level.

“With many current reactors reaching their retirement dates and so few new plant projects underway, we need lifetime extensions of existing plants to keep global nuclear capacity from sharply declining by 2030, particularly in Europe and North America,” said Aliki van Heek, an IAEA energy expert heading the team that drafted the report. “Without these extensions, it could have major consequences in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, air pollution and electricity supply security.”

Around 100 nuclear power reactors have already received life extension licenses for varying periods following refurbishment. Nuclear power amounts to about 10 percent of global electricity production and almost one third of all low carbon electricity.

Extending the fleet’s lifetime by a second decade to 60 years would generate an additional 31 400 TWh of electricity. That additional generation would represent almost 2% of the world’s low carbon electricity produced between 2020 and 2080, using the average of the four illustrative model pathways in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Lifetime extension to 80 years total would more than double those figures.

The estimates in the data animation account only for existing reactors and do not account for new reactors to be added in the future. Currently, 53 nuclear reactors are under construction in 19 countries, representing some 56 000 MW in future installed capacity. In addition, several operating countries are looking to expand their nuclear power fleet and around 30 countries are considering adding nuclear power to their energy mix.

The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), used to measure electricity generation costs, associated with the long-term operation of a nuclear power plant generally falls in the range US$ 30-40 per MWh, for typical refurbishment costs for Light Water Reactors and a lifetime extension of 20 years. This is comparable to the LCOE of new wind and solar photovoltaic plants in optimal conditions, and is therefore one of the most cost-effective way of producing low carbon electricity.

“Climate change mitigation is urgent, but the challenge of switching to an essentially decarbonized global power system is daunting,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. “Given the timescale and investments required to make this transition, the world cannot afford to sacrifice existing low carbon nuclear that can operate safely and competitively for decades more.”

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