Nuclear Power: An Evolving Scenario

by Mohamed ElBaradei

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Change On The Horizon?

Some analysts believe the case for new nuclear construction in Europe is gaining new ground, for a number of reasons.

Carbon Emissions

The first is the result of the clear position Europe has taken in global efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the risk of climate change.

Nuclear power emits virtually no greenhouse gases. The complete nuclear power chain, from uranium mining to waste disposal, and including reactor and facility construction, emits only 2-6 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour. This is about the same as wind and solar power, and two orders of magnitude below coal, oil and even natural gas. Worldwide, if the 440 nuclear power plants were shut down and replaced with a proportionate mix of non-nuclear sources, the result would be an increase of 600 million tonnes of carbon per year. That is approximately twice the total amount that we estimate will be avoided by the Kyoto Protocol in 2010, assuming Russian ratification.

Security of Supply

A second reason is the current emphasis in Europe on the security of energy supply. The Green Paper on Europe's supply security estimated that business-as-usual would increase dependency on imported energy from around 50% today to around 70% in 2030. A similar concern drove nuclear power investment during the 1970s oil crisis, an investment that contributes significantly to the security of Europe's energy supply today. Large European uranium resources are not a necessary condition for this security. Rather, it is based on the diverse roster of stable uranium producers, and the small storage space required for a long term fuel supply.

Comparative Public Health Risk

Clearly, however, energy decisions cannot be made on a "one-size-fits-all" basis. Each country and region faces a different set of variables when choosing its energy strategy.

What about safety and public health? For nuclear power, significant health impacts arise only from major accidents, of which there has been just one - Chernobyl - caused by serious design flaws coupled with serious operator mistakes. Chernobyl was a light water graphite-moderated reactor (RBMK reactor), and there are still 15 RBMK reactors operating in Russia, plus two in Lithuania that are scheduled for closure in 2005 and 2009, according to accession agreements. Due to improvements made since 1986, none of these reactors poses the threat of Chernobyl, nor are more RBMKs being built.

More to the point, Chernobyl is not the prototype for new nuclear plants - European or otherwise. For evaluating the performance of future plants, a much better model would be the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) that TVO in Finland just selected for its new Olkiluoto-3 plant. When engineering analysts examine the public health risk from these new nuclear designs - or, for that matter, the safety record of the world's nuclear plants over the past decade of operation - they find nuclear related risks to be among the lowest in the energy industry.

Making the Choice

Clearly, however, energy decisions cannot be made on a "one-size-fits-all" basis. Each country and region faces a different set of variables when choosing its energy strategy. For example, Europe does not face the dual pressures of population growth and the need for economic development that are present in some parts of Asia. With two-fifths of the world's population, China and India are among those countries that face enormous energy demands, driven by the need to combat poverty and hunger.

Energy choices are also strongly affected by public perceptions - including perceptions of risk. Despite the engineering analyses I just mentioned, and despite the array of measures that have been put in place to offset the possibility of a severe nuclear accident, such a risk can never be brought to zero - and the memory of Chernobyl continues to weigh heavily on public perceptions in some countries. In Austria, for example, where I live, and where there are no nuclear power plants, I would expect the overwhelming majority to be against nuclear power. Finland, by contrast, has a long and positive experience with nuclear power, and a majority of its public continues to support nuclear power expansion. Yet in other countries, such as Germany and Sweden - even where considerable experience with nuclear power has not been accompanied by significant safety concerns - anti-nuclear sentiments have led to decisions to phase out nuclear power.

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