Achieving net zero emissions with nuclear energy: An interview with Dr Sama Bilbao y León, Director General, World Nuclear Association

Dr Sama Bilbao y León
Director General
By World Nuclear Association | 6 December 2022

How does nuclear energy play a key role in energy transition? World Nuclear Association (WNA) Director General Dr Sama Bilbao y León shares WNA’s initiatives and the important role nuclear energy plays in our future energy mix.

  1. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has projected that nuclear capacity in 2040 is expected to be around 528 GW, which is well below the level needed to achieve Net Zero Emissions (NZE) by 2050. What are the key challenges that would need to be overcome in the next decade or so for nuclear energy to play a key role in the energy transition and achieve the NZE target?

    The IEA develops its projections based on known plans and commitments for the construction of new nuclear power plants. These are not net-zero scenarios.

    Based on known plans and commitments for the deployment of all low carbon energy sources (wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal etc.) the so called National Determined Contributions (NDCs), the world is quite far away from reaching net zero by 2050.

    Ambitious, yet realistic, reputable net-zero scenarios performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) conclude that the nuclear capacity will need to reach more than 1200GW to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement.

    In September, the UNECE published a report, Carbon Neutrality in the UNECE Region-Technology Interplay under the Carbon Neutrality Concept, which called for “ambitious and bold action from governments, the private sector and regulators”. The report concluded that nuclear energy was "an essential low-carbon electricity and heat source contributing to carbon neutrality" and that countries which decide to deploy nuclear power "can play an essential role in decarbonising the UNECE energy systems".

    It is important that urgent action is taken to accelerate construction of new nuclear reactors. For nuclear to grow at the speed and scale required, policy changes and energy markets redesign are required to enable long term planning and to incentivise investment in all low carbon energy sources, including nuclear. The nuclear community needs to engage and influence all stakeholders in the ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) arena to ensure they recognise the important contributions of nuclear energy.

    Governments should acknowledge the important role nuclear energy must play in our future energy mix, and, more importantly, they must develop energy policies that support the deployment of nuclear generation at scale and at speed.

    Mechanisms must be developed to ensure that nuclear projects can be financed affordably, creating the right environment to encourage investment.

    Governments, industry, and regulators should also work together on the harmonisation of licencing and regulatory frameworks to enable new reactors to be deployed worldwide.

    It is also important that reactors in operation today are utilised to their maximum potential. The IEA has concluded that extending the operation of existing nuclear reactors delivers the most cost-effective additional low-carbon electricity generation.

  2. What are some of the existing and planned initiatives by WNA to support potential newcomer countries that are considering the use of nuclear energy?

    There are countries in all regions of the world that are looking to deploy new nuclear energy programmes. In Asia, World Nuclear Association has partnered with the ASEAN Centre for Energy to work together towards building capabilities on nuclear energy technologies and their applications, enhancing human resource capabilities in the area of nuclear science and technology, improving public engagement on nuclear energy, building capabilities on nuclear law and regulatory frameworks, and strengthening regional cooperation on nuclear energy for power generation. In Africa we are initiating collaborative efforts in support of newcomer countries together with African Energy Chamber and African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE).

    We have also held “World Nuclear Spotlight” events in countries such as Poland, and Indonesia to bring together global nuclear leaders with local decision makers to discuss the specific requirements and opportunities for nuclear development in those host countries.

    Through our World Nuclear University (WNU), we offer a range of different training programmes that help inspire and develop the competencies of the future leaders in the nuclear industry in those newcomer countries. These programmes include the WNU Summer Institute, an intensive five-week nuclear leadership and professional development course. Each year the participation of delegates from emerging nuclear countries is supported through a partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

    Additionally, around fifty WNU World Nuclear Industry Today short courses, with more than 7,500 attendees, have been held around the world, including in nuclear newcomer countries.

  3. Innovation in nuclear energy, like small modular reactors, will help expand the range of options. How is WNA working with different stakeholders around the world to promote a wider understanding of and inspire greater confidence in nuclear energy?

    As the international organisation representing the global nuclear industry, World Nuclear Association has developed partnerships with a broad range of global and multinational organisations engaging in the global energy debate. These include the IEA,  the World Energy Council, and the United Nations Commission on Europe. We engage with other global nuclear organisations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).

    We are the global representative of the nuclear industry at multilateral fora, for example at the United Nation’s COP Climate Change Conferences.

    To inform our interactions with policymakers, the finance community, the media, and the public, we produce authoritative briefs, policy papers and reports that help them better understand the essential role of existing and advanced nuclear technologies, such as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These technologies will play an integral role in the clean energy systems of the future if we are serious about achieving the Paris Agreement decarbonisation targets in an equitable and cost-effective manner.

    A greater understanding of nuclear energy is key to securing public support for an expansion of the range of applications to which nuclear energy technologies are applied. For more than two decades, World Nuclear Association has provided the most comprehensive free-access library of information on nuclear energy and other applications of nuclear technologies, such as nuclear medicine. Additionally, World Nuclear News has provided informative updates and briefings on events within the nuclear industry on a free-access platform for the past 15 years.

  4. Earlier this year, WNA published the World Nuclear Performance Report 2022. What are some of the key highlights, and developments WNA has observed since then and expect to see going forward?

    The World Nuclear Performance Report 2022 assesses the historical performance of nuclear reactors worldwide, putting in context the performance of last year in relation to the long-term trends in nuclear generation and construction. The report has shown that generation of electricity from the world’s nuclear reactors has increased each year since 2012, with the exception of 2020 when global electricity demand was much reduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the global average capacity factor for nuclear reactors has continued to increase beyond 80%.

    The report has also identified a growing number of reactors that have operated in excess of 50 years, and which are still providing electricity at very high capacity factors. In fact, no age-related decline in reactor performance has been observed.

    New start-ups and new construction starts are still far from the speed needed to deliver net-zero targets. However, in the few months since the report was published, there have been some additional positive developments. For example, three new reactors have started construction, in Turkey, Egypt and China, and the third reactor at Barakah in United Arab Emirates has started supplying power to the grid. We have also seen a delay to the shutdown of the three remaining nuclear power plants in Germany, to provide reliable power over the winter months amidst the energy crisis in Europe.

  5. How is the World Nuclear Association and its members role helping to shape “A Resilient and Sustainable Energy Future”?

    A resilient and sustainable energy future will need a much larger contribution from nuclear energy than is the case today. We know nuclear energy provides an excellent answer to the energy trilemma the world faces today. Nuclear energy’s clean, low-carbon, 24/7 generation can help decarbonise the entire economy beyond electricity, for industrial applications, heating and cooling for buildings, producing fresh water, powering the shipping industry, producing hydrogen, ammonia, and synthetic fuels. Nuclear can deliver this with a tiny lifecycle footprint in terms of land and raw minerals use, air and water pollution, and biodiversity consequences. Nuclear energy delivers abundant affordable energy independently of the weather, the season, and geopolitical pressures.

    Nuclear power is today the second largest source of low-carbon electricity, the first in OECD countries. Our members, covering the entire nuclear fuel cycle, are collectively responsible for avoiding over 60 gigatonnes CO2 emissions during the last 50 years. Our members are also working together to accelerate the deployment of new nuclear energy projects, large and small, in all continents of the world. This additional nuclear capacity will be essential to completely decarbonise the economy in an equitable and cost-effective manner. World Nuclear Association is proud to continuously support our members, and the nuclear professionals they employ, by promoting a wider understanding of nuclear energy among key international influencers by producing authoritative information, developing common industry positions, and contributing to the energy debate.

About Dr Sama Bilbao y León, Director General, World Nuclear Association:

Dr Sama Bilbao y León became Director General of World Nuclear Association in October 2020. In this role, Sama leads a team of experts, analysts and communicators to enable the growth of the global nuclear sector. She connects players across the nuclear value chain, shapes and represents the industry’s position in key world forums, provides authoritative information, and influences key audiences, organizations and media.

Sama is also President of World Nuclear University. She has more than 20 years of experience in nuclear engineering and energy policy. Having worked in the nuclear industry, she has a diverse professional experience. Her roles include:

  • Industry: Nuclear Safety Analysis Engineer, Dominion Energy, USA
  • Academia: Director of Nuclear Engineering Programs and Associate Professor at the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), USA
  • International organisations: Head of the Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Head of the Technical Secretariat for the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), Head of Water Cooled Reactors Technology Development Unit, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Sama, who is originally from Spain, holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Energy Technologies from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. She also has a master's degree and a PhD in Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and an MBA from Averett University.

She is also one of the seven founders of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN). Sama’s areas of expertise are nuclear thermal hydraulics for both light water reactors and sodium cooled reactors, nuclear reactor design, nuclear safety, energy and environmental policy, and complex decision making.


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