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Factsheets and FAQs

Electricity, Nuclear Power and Global Environment

» Power and Progress | The Price of Power | Is Anything Being Done? | The Nuclear Option | Avoiding Greenhouse Emissions | The Energy Future: Striking a Balance | Clearing the Air

Power and Progress

Electricity consumption is practically synonymous with modern life in the industrialized world. Our communications, transport, food supplies, and most amenities of contemporary homes, offices and factories depend on a reliable supply of electrical power.

As more countries industrialize, ever greater amounts of power are consumed. Worldwide energy consumption has multiplied twenty-five fold since the last century. Average per capita consumption of electricity is about ten times higher in industrial countries than in the developing world.

But with the economies in many developing nations now expanding rapidly, electricity demand in the "South" is expected to grow at over 5% annually during the next fifteen years. Meeting this demand will require a dramatic rise in electricity output.

The Price of Power

The generation of electric power around the world remains largely dependent on the burning of fossil fuels--oil, gas and coal--which are heavily polluting. One of the most serious threats to the global environment comes from such pollution--the rapidly rising emissions of so-called "greenhouse" gases, especially carbon dioxide(CO2) which many scientists believe is principally responsible for global warming.

Indeed, the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that unless the world community takes immediate and drastic steps to stabilize and reduce the emissions of such heat-trapping gases, global temperatures may rise by at least 1.5 degrees centigrade by the middle of the next century--a rate of increase that would be comparable to the warming that ended the last Ice Age, and with perhaps equally profound effects on sea levels and climate. Among the most alarming predictions of the report: entire ecosystems could vanish as rainfall and temperature patterns shift; huge swaths of densely populated land could be inundated by rising seas; and droughts, floods and storms could become more severe.

While the IPCC may intend this as a worse-case scenario, there is a widespread consensus among scientists that rising volumes of green-house gas emissions combined with other noxious forms of air pollution represent a sizeable threat to both global ecological stability and human health.

Is Anything Being Done?

When representatives from around the world gathered in Brazil at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, they agreed in principle to a set of proposals to slow emissions of greenhouse gases. The richer developed countries committed themselves to holding atmospheric emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. But progress since the Earth Summit has been uneven and in some cases negligible. Emission rates of carbon dioxide have slowed only marginally in some industrialized countries - mainly due to the slowing down of their economies - and in most developing countries have increased significantly owing to expanding energy demand and reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

Changes in the patterns of resource consumption are also unlikely to result from fossil fuels becoming scarcer or more expensive. According to the World Resources Institute, fossil fuel production and consumption are continuing to rise almost everywhere. And proven reserves of petroleum, natural gas and coal are currently estimated to cover the demand of the next 40, 60 and some 230 years respectively. Over the next two decades, India plans to treble and China to double the consumption of coal for electricity consumption.

In an effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, some countries are turning to natural gas, which is economically competitive with oil and coal. However, natural gas consumption also produces carbon dioxide (though less than coal or oil) and, moreover, methane leakages from extraction, transmission and distribution of natural gas are globally in the 5 to 10 % range, a level which more than offsets the gains from lower CO2 emissions.

Given the prospects of ever rising consumption of fossil fuels for electricity production and an increasing threat to the global environment, nuclear power can play an important part for countries that need increasing energy supplies without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Nuclear Option

Nuclear power plants already provide about 17% of the world's total supply of electricity. They produce practically no carbon dioxide(CO2), sulphur dioxide(SO2) or nitrogen oxide(NOx) emissions. At least five countries, including France, Sweden and Belgium, rely on nuclear power for more than 50% of their total electrical supplies. Another ten countries, including Finland, Japan, Republic of Korea, Spain and Switzerland rely on nuclear plants to provide 30% or more of their total supplies. And a large number of developing nations, including Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Pakistan, have operational nuclear power plants. Worldwide there are more than 430 reactors currently in operation producing about as much electricity as obtained from hydropower.

Avoiding Greenhouse Emissions

The increasing use of nuclear power since the 1960s, combined with steady increases in hydropower, have helped curb worldwide carbon dioxide output. If the electric energy generated worldwide by nuclear power each year were produced instead by coal-powered plants, there would be additional emissions of 1,600 million tonnes of CO2.

Put another way: if the world were not employing nuclear power today, global carbon dioxide emissions would be at least 8 percent greater every year.

Nuclear power is more environmentally friendly from a waste management perspective as well. In addition to the large quantities of greenhouse gases and sulfuric acid generated, a 1000MW(e) coal-burning plant produces some 300,000 tonnes of ash per year, containing among other things radioactive material and heavy metals which end up in landfill sites and in the atmosphere. On the other hand, the radioactive waste arising from a nuclear plant of the same capacity amounts only to some 800 tonnes of low and medium level waste, and some 30 tonnes of high level waste per year, which can be isolated from the biosphere.

While a global trend toward reducing the amounts of CO2 produced for each unit of energy consumed has been espoused by governments, relatively few countries have succeeded in reducing output of greenhouse gases through a switch to non-fossil fuels. France, Japan, India, Republic of Korea and Sweden have all markedly reduced their CO2 emissions per unit of energy output by up to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Countries with no nuclear power (such as Ireland, Italy and Denmark) have seen their energy related emissions drop by less than 10 percent.

The Energy Future: Striking a Balance

The combination of population growth, economic development and industrialization around the world means global energy consumption will continue to grow. These trends, together with the continuing reliance on fossil fuels for primary energy, also mean that worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to rise. Even with stringent reduction measures, current projections do not show a leveling off of emissions until about 2050.

It is within this broader environmental context that nuclear power is being considered by some governments and power generating utilities, especially in the developing world. Through its "Decades" programme the IAEA is working together with many of these countries to carry out comprehensive energy planning through comparative assessment of energy sources and their respective impacts on health and environment.

Should the nuclear option be found viable, the IAEA can, if desired, assist Member States in carefully planning implementation, including help in the establishment of adequate industrial and organizational infrastructures and personnel training, and ensuring efficient and safe operation and maintenance of nuclear power facilities.

Clearing the Air

In many industrialized countries, abroad sector of public opinion remains hesitant or opposed to an increased use of nuclear power, or even a continuation at present levels. Such opposition hinges on three factors: fear of accidents; fear of long-lived radioactive wastes; and fear that the use of nuclear power will contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The expansion of nuclear power, however, has not led to proliferation of nuclear weapons. To the contrary, there has been a continuous increase in the number of countries committing themselves to non-proliferation.

While public and media remain sensitive to every minor disturbance in nuclear installations, nuclear power plants in fact generally allow great reliability and resilience. Nuclear power plants have an accumulated operating experience of nearly 7,200 reactor-years. The lessons learned have been used to make changes in operational design and engineering to achieve increased reliability and safety.

Like every other source of energy, nuclear power generates wastes that must be managed and disposed of properly. The technologies for safe disposal of low and intermediate level radioactive wastes are well proven and extensively utilized in IAEA Member States. Long term storage of high-level wastes like spent fuel under safe conditions is technically achievable, but is confronted by political obstacles that governments must overcome.

Ten Largest Consumers of Nuclear Power

Country No. Units Total MW(e)
USA 109 99,784
France 56 58,493
Japan 59 38,875
Germany 21 22,657
Russian Federation 29 19,843
Canada 22 15,755
Ukraine 15 12,679
United Kingdom 12 11,720
Sweden 12 10,002
Republic of Korea 10 8,170
Total 335 297,978
World 432 340,347

Many countries are urgently working to identify sites, or to construct and complete facilities for long-term disposal of high level wastes. Such deep underground facilities will have to meet the highest environmental, geological and human safety standards. The nuclear community is conscious of its responsibilities, and collectively invests more on safety measures than any other comparable industry.