In 2022, the nuclear energy sector witnessed a number of significant developments, many of which were linked to the question of how governments will be able to achieve net zero targets while ensuring energy security. From discussions on new domestic nuclear energy and reactor lifespan policies to the analysis of progress on new technologies such as SMRs; nuclear energy was at the centre of a global discourse on the world's future energy and environmental needs.
In this Q&A interview, Nuclear Energy Agency's Director-General William D. Magwood, IV shares his forecasts for the biggest developments, challenges and conversations in the nuclear energy sector in 2023.
The nuclear energy sector is a constantly evolving space. What were the biggest developments in nuclear energy in 2022?
There are occasions when many factors come together at once to effective major shifts. 2022 was such a time. Many governments were in the process of absorbing the outcomes of COP 26 in Glasgow in which the significance of the challenge of decarbonisation crystalised. The war in Ukraine and the geopolitical and economic fallout — particularly the impacts on global energy markets — brought home the cold realities of energy security. In parallel, several small modular reactor efforts made visible progress toward deployment. These factors created an environment in which global interest in nuclear energy reached a new high and governments around the world set about revising or accelerating plans for new nuclear capacity. It was a very eventful year.
In recent years, a number of governments and policymakers around the world have introduced, reintroduced or increased nuclear power strategies into their energy policies. What are the key factors influencing this?
The advent of new reactor technologies that have the clear potential to be easier to build, deploy and operate is certainly a driving factor. Small modular reactors (SMRs) and Generation IV technologies have captured the attention of many policymakers who hope these designs offer the prospect of nuclear capacity that can fit in many varied economic and societal contexts. But it is also apparent that the context of the drive toward net zero is at the heart of much of the recent changes highlighted. For many governments that are searching for serious paths toward decarbonisation, nuclear energy is an enabler that can work in combination with variable renewables to provide both low-carbon energy and energy security.
NEA analysis shows that global installed nuclear energy capacity must triple by 2050 in order for the world to reach net zero. Is the industry on track to meet this target?
No, I’m afraid not. While we certainly see a significantly increased seriousness in the effort to decarbonise the global economy, the policies of most countries pale in contrast to the scale and significance of the change needed to reach net zero by 2050. Nuclear capacity is likely to increase but unless policies, markets and incentives shift very quickly to align with stated goals, it’s unlikely that we will see that tripling. Correspondingly, it is also unlikely that the world will meet its carbon reduction goals. We are already far behind where we should be and unless there is dramatic shift, it is very difficult to see how decarbonisation targets will be reached.
There is a lot of discussion about how SMRs will be a game changer for the nuclear energy sector. However, large-scale deployment faces several technical, economic, regulatory and supply chain challenges. Are these challenges which can be solved within the next decade?
In a very real sense, as NEA analysis has highlighted, these challenges are not problems associated with nuclear energy. The difficulties we have seen in the last twenty years with nuclear construction projects are similar to problems experienced in many other large, complex construction projects. Western countries are badly out of practice in building big, complicated things and nuclear construction doesn’t escape this malaise. Add nuclear-specific issues—atrophied supply chains, limited experience in regulatory agencies overseeing construction projects, and a troubling dearth of specialised skilled workers in many places and the results are well documented. However, there is hope as we also see how large nuclear projects such as the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in Abu Dhabi can be completed successfully when the right expertise, supply chains and management are brought together.
You have been vocal on the topic of gender balance in the nuclear sector and the need to help close this gap. Why is this so essential and what work is the NEA doing in this space?
First and foremost, our member countries, whatever their policies with regard to nuclear energy, need a large number of talented, well-trained people to address the challenges of the future. The fact that so few women enter nuclear science and technology fields and fewer still climb to leadership roles is a terrible loss of a resource that is desperately needed.
Beyond that, I believe all activities benefit from having diverse viewpoints brought together to analyse and solve challenges. Women often bring a different perspective that I find enhances organisations and strengthens outcomes. The lack of women in the nuclear field, in my view, is an existential challenge for the sector.
We are doing many varied things at the NEA to take on this challenge. Most notably, a task force under the Steering Committee for Nuclear Energy is putting forward a policy framework that we hope will soon be formally presented to all member countries for adoption. If this happens, we will have turned talk and good intentions into action and a brighter future for women in nuclear around the globe.
In order to succeed, the nuclear sector will require a robust workforce of nuclear scientists, engineers, researchers and operators. What actions is the agency taking to appeal to the next generation of STEM students, and promote the nuclear sector as a rewarding career path?
We have initiatives such as the Nuclear Energy Skills and Technology framework, or NEST, which are very important. But the biggest impact we may be having is getting out of our offices and conferences and going to universities and high schools around the world. We and the experts we engage in the course of our work are fantastic role models. I encourage my staff to arrange to visit schools and universities in the course of their missions and we’ll be doing more of this in the future.
As someone who has been working in the nuclear sector for over 30 years, what has been the biggest and most important lesson that you have learned throughout your career that you would share to someone entering into this sector?
That nothing that is not prohibited by the laws of science is impossible. People are too quick to point out why one aspiration or other can’t be done or is simply too hard. So my advice is to learn from the experience of others but don’t accept that what didn’t work in the past can’t be attempted today.
You have remarked that people who work in the nuclear industry are futurists – people who believe in the future. What developments do you hope to witness within the next five years?
The Pittsburgh Pirates winning the World Series. Besides that, I would like to see countries take the steps necessary to make net zero possible by taking full advantage of all the tools in our collective toolkit—including advanced nuclear energy.
William D. Magwood, IV has held the position of Director-General at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency since September, 2014.