IAEA Data Animation: Extending the Life of Reactors Helps to Meet Climate Goals

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

According to IAEA.