The role of flexible nuclear energy systems in a low-carbon energy future

New NICE Future Initiative report, Flexible Nuclear Energy for Clean Energy Systems. Photo: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock.

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Flexible nuclear energy systems could support deeper integration of nuclear and renewable energy on the path towards a low-carbon energy future. The NICE Future Initiative launched a new report on nuclear flexibility in clean energy systems, with contributions from the NEA, the United States Department of Energy, Natural Resources Canada, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan, the United Kingdom Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, the International Energy Agency (IAEA) and 22 other organisations.

The Flexible Nuclear Energy for Clean Energy Systems report provides a collection of technical analyses that demonstrate the current and potential roles nuclear energy could play in providing flexibility to meet future energy demands. It includes insights from NEA system analysis studies on the value of flexible nuclear operation in increasingly integrated clean energy systems.

NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV participated in the report’s virtual launch on 15 September 2020 at the 11th Clean Energy Ministerial. During his remarks, he highlighted the role of nuclear energy within the context of clean energy systems of the future.

Mr Magwood also noted the flexibility attributes that advanced nuclear reactors could provide to address future energy market needs, such as industrial heat applications. “It’s often forgotten that industrial processes that use heat generated by natural gas or coal are actually a tremendous contributor to carbon emissions. And we can address that problem using high-temperature reactors that can replace fossil fuels in providing industrial heat, and also residential heat as well,” he said.

Watch the full Clean Energy Ministerial NICE Future side event "Flexibility in Clean Energy Systems: The Enabling Roles of Nuclear Energy:


What is energy flexibility? Why is it important within the context of the energy transitions currently under way?

Nuclear energy enables energy system flexibility in three key ways:

  • Operations
  • Products
  • Size

NICE Future flexibility report table 15

The potential of further development and implementation of flexible nuclear production is a core focus of recent and ongoing NEA work. There is an established body of knowledge surrounding flexible operation of existing nuclear plants and NEA analysis demonstrates that the value of flexible nuclear operations at the system level increases progressively at higher rates of variable renewable energy. Therefore, nuclear flexibility can be a key enabler for non-dispatchable low-carbon technologies such as variable renewables.

NICE Future flexibility report Figure 46 

Innovation can increase the flexibility of existing nuclear reactors to produce both low-carbon electricity and beneficial non-electric products. It is increasingly recognised that advanced reactors can be suitable for applications beyond electricity production and can provide flexibility attributes that could address future energy market needs such as hydrogen production and industrial heat applications.      

NICE Future flexibility report FIGURE 43 

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