The past two years have found the IAEA often in the spotlight - primarily because of our role as the world's 'nuclear watchdog', as we are sometimes referred to on the evening news. This heightened focus has enabled governments and the public at large to appreciate the even-handed approach we try to bring to our verification activities, by relying exclusively on hard evidence. This, in turn, has given the IAEA a reputation for objectivity and independence. We apply this same approach to the other side of our "Atoms for Peace" mission: using nuclear technology for economic and social development.
Atomic energy can also be harnessed to serve more basic human needs. One of the gratifying experiences of my professional life has been to witness the increasing array of nuclear and isotopic techniques that have been used to address daunting challenges - particularly in the developing world - to generate crops with better yield in arid climates, to study child malnutrition, to manage drinking water supplies, to increase industrial productivity, to eradicate disease-bearing pests, and to solve many other problems related to hunger, poverty and inadequate health care.
The most visible, and often controversial, peaceful nuclear application is the generation of electricity, the focus of this article largely from a European perspective.
The state of nuclear power remains a very mixed picture - but with some signs that change could be on the horizon. At the end of last year there were 440 nuclear power units operating worldwide. Together, they supply about 16% of the world's electricity. That percentage has remained relatively steady for almost 20 years - meaning that nuclear electricity generation has grown at essentially the same rate as total electricity use worldwide.
Nuclear electricity generation is concentrated in developed countries. More than half of the world's reactors are in North America and Western Europe, and fewer than 10% are situated in developing countries - which is nonetheless where this century's greatest growth in energy demand will likely occur. Many developed countries generate substantial portions of their electricity from nuclear fission: including Russia, at 16%; Germany, at 30%; or Japan, at 35%.
By contrast, for large developing countries such as Brazil, India and China, the percentages are only 4%, 3.7% and 1.4%, respectively.
Expansion and growth prospects for nuclear power are centred in Asia. Of the 31 units under construction worldwide, 18 are located in India, Japan, South Korea and China - including Taiwan. Twenty of the last 29 reactors to be connected to the grid are also in the Far East and South Asia. That is probably more active construction than most Europeans would guess, given how little recent growth has occurred in the West. For Western Europe and North America, nuclear construction has been a frozen playing field - the last plant to be completed being Civaux-2 in France in 1999. That should raise a question: with little to no new construction, how has nuclear power been able to keep up with other energy sources, to maintain its share of electricity generation?
Interestingly enough, the answer is tied directly to efforts to improve safety performance. The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 prompted the creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), and revolutionized the IAEA approach to nuclear power plant safety. Through both organizations, networks were created to conduct peer reviews, compare safety practices, and exchange vital operating information to improve safety performance. A more systematic analysis of risk was used to ensure that changes made were in areas that would bring the greatest safety return.
Although the focus of this international effort was on improving safety, the secondary benefit was a steady increase in nuclear plant availability and productivity. In 1990, nuclear plants on average were generating electricity 71% of the time. As of 2002, that figure had risen to 84% - an improvement in productivity equal to adding more than 34 new 1000-megawatt nuclear plants - all at relatively minimal cost.
The result is that existing well-run nuclear power plants have become increasingly valuable assets. Although the front-loaded cost structure of a nuclear plant is high, the operating costs have become relatively low and stable. While these improvements to safety and economics have not been well publicized - and have not yet had a significant impact on the public's opinion of nuclear power - they have not escaped the notice of investors. They have been a strong factor in decisions to extend the licences of existing plants - for example, in the United States, where 19 plants have received 20-year licence extensions in the past five years.