Table of Contents
The Energy Challenge
Nuclear Power Facts
Nuclear Power Advantages
The Salient Points
Annex I: The DECADES Project
Annex II: Nuclear Power Case Studies
The Nuclear Power Potential
The 6% nuclear power contribution to global primary energy supply is almost entirely in the rapidly increasing electricity sector, where 17% of global electricity is generated by some 440 nuclear power reactors in 32 countries. There are 36 units currently under construction in 14 countries. The first commercial nuclear power reactor began operation some 40 years ago, with a rapid expansion in reactor units taking place during the 1970s and early 1980s.
In terms of the total quantity of nuclear electricity generated [Fig.: Nuclear Share of Electricity (1996)], the five largest producers are the USA, France, Japan, Germany and the Russian Federation. Globally, the nuclear share of electricity is more than 20% in 19 countries. Regionally in 1996, western Europe with a 33% share had the highest percentage of nuclear electricity - the nuclear share in France, Belgium and Sweden being 77, 57 and 52% respectively. Two large nuclear power units in Lithuania supplied almost 85% of the country's electricity requirements.
With a continuation of the current trend, the next century will see global electricity demand grow faster than overall energy demand as electricity provides the greatest flexibility in use at the point of consumption [Fig.: Global Energy and Electricity Growth (1996)]. Already Turkey, an example of a rapidly industrializing developing country, has seen its electricity capacity increase ten-fold in the past 25 years from some 2200 megawatts electric (MW(e)) to 21 000 MW(e). The 1997 DOE energy outlook report projects a possible 75% global increase in electricity demand from 1995 to 2015 - equivalent to 1500 new 1000 MW(e) plants.
Although nuclear power is currently a significant source of global electricity supply, there is no consensus concerning its future role. While nuclear power stagnates in much of Europe and in North America, it continues as a strong option in some Asian countries. Economics and security of supply have been principal considerations in the choice of nuclear power along with an awareness of its environmental benefits - from mining to waste disposal and decommissioning it produces remarkably little environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. These three factors - economics, security of supply and environmental considerations - will determine the long term role of nuclear power in a sustainable energy future.
All three energy scenarios of the 1995 WEC and IIASA study - as well as those developed by the IPCC for its climate change studies - assume a very significant nuclear power contribution over the next few decades, but the assumptions for nuclear power after 2020 vary considerably owing to the current uncertainty about its future. For the six variants in the study, the range of the nuclear power contribution varies from a twenty-fold increase to a total phase-out by the end of the next century [Fig.: Projected Nuclear Capacity for Six Variants}.
The call for a nuclear role
Various groups dealing with energy have recognized the nuclear power potential for reducing the environmental burden from energy production. The IPCC maintains that there is a potential vital role for nuclear power, particularly in the electricity sphere. Its 1996 Technical Paper 1, in examining options to reduce greenhouse emissions by switching to non-fossil fuel sources, states:
"Nuclear energy could replace baseload fossil fuel electricity in many parts of the world if generally acceptable responses can be found to concerns such as reactor safety, radioactive waste transport and disposal, and nuclear proliferation."
It foresees non-electrical applications for nuclear power, such as industrial processes and district heating, and in the longer term for hydrogen production.
The concerns restraining the growth of nuclear power noted in the IPCC Technical Paper (Box 3) are echoed in the 1995 WEC and IIASA study:
"Today it is not clear how and by which technologies the current problems facing nuclear energy may be resolved. What actually happens will depend on how safety, waste disposal, and proliferation concerns are resolved, and whether the green house debate adds increasing importance to nuclear energy's 'carbon benignness'. Consequently, after 2020 completely different nuclear futures may unfold varying from an almost five-fold expansion between 1990 and 2050 to a 20 percent decline."
The WEC in its recent Message for 1997 advocates:
"Establishing conditions under which nuclear energy could make an increased contribution to energy supply. This means securing high safety performance and good operating practices, and demonstrating that nuclear waste can be managed safely. The nuclear industry needs to ensure that these facts are communicated successfully and are comprehended by the general public."
A distinctly supportive message emerged from the leaders of the seven leading economic countries and the Russian Federation at the Nuclear Safety and Security Summit held in Moscow during April 1996. It declares:
"We are ready to co-operate among ourselves so that the use of nuclear energy is conducted all over the world consistently with fundamental principles of nuclear safety. Further, we are committed to measures which will enable nuclear power, already a significant contributor to electricity supply in those countries choosing to exploit it, to continue in the next century to play an important role in meeting future energy demands consistent with the goal of sustainable development agreed at the Rio Conference."
Addressing nuclear concerns
With energy generating plant lifetimes expected to exceed 50 years, plants built during the next few decades will remain in operation into the latter part of the next century. Consequently, near term efforts and decisions will have an important impact on the long term global response to the Agenda 21 call for environmentally sustainable development. Exploiting the maximum potential of the few energy sources that have limited environmental releases would be desirable.
When nuclear power is dismissed as a contributor to sustainable development, this decision, as already noted, is often said to be due to public concerns about safety, waste disposal and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Clearly, in view of nuclear power's contribution to date and its significant potential, these concerns deserve fuller consideration.