Nuclear Power: An Evolving Scenario

by Mohamed ElBaradei

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How countries balance the risk of a nuclear accident against other factors - such as air pollution, dammed rivers, mining accidents, or dependency on foreign fuel supplies - are matters of complexity and of legitimate debate. At the IAEA, we do our best to provide the most objective information possible to support a country's decisions on energy supply, to ensure that the risks and benefits of nuclear technology are clearly and fairly understood, and to assist those countries that choose nuclear power in operating their facilities safely and securely.

Key Issues For Future Viability

As we look to the future, certain key challenges are, in my view, of direct relevance to the future viability of nuclear power.

Waste Management and Disposal

The greatest challenge lies in the development of clear global and national strategies for the management and disposal of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste. Here in Europe, the Parliament in January approved a draft legislative resolution requiring EU Member States to submit, by 2006, detailed programmes for long term waste management and disposal. Finland has been in the lead in this area; the Finnish Government and Parliament have already ratified a 'decision in principle', with solid local support, to build a final nuclear waste repository in a cavern near the nuclear power plants at Olkiluoto. Sweden is also working to finalize the process of site selection. The IAEA has been working hard to help its Member States develop waste management and disposal strategies, and to facilitate international cooperation in waste disposal research and demonstration projects.

To visualize the waste issue, analysts sometimes note that the spent fuel produced from all the world's reactors in a year - even without being processed for re-use - would fit into a structure the size of a soccer field and 1.5 meters high. When this amount - 12 000 tonnes - is contrasted with the 25 billion tonnes of carbon waste released directly into the atmosphere every year from fossil fuels, the volume of spent nuclear fuel seems relatively small. Moreover, disposal technology is fully capable of stabilizing nuclear waste in the form of glass or ceramic, encasing it further in corrosion resistant containers, and isolating it geologically. Further research is underway that would use accelerator driven systems to reduce the volume and radio-toxicity of waste. And new research is being conducted on ways to ensure the retrievability of waste stored in repositories, to allow full use of future advances in technology. Nonetheless, the public remains skeptical - and nuclear waste disposal will likely remain controversial, possibly until the first geological repositories are operational and the disposal technologies fully demonstrated.

Safety Performance

A second key challenge relates to safety performance. As I have already mentioned, the development of strong international nuclear safety networks over the past two decades has paid off, and I feel confident in saying that nuclear safety has dramatically improved. But we should not rest on our laurels. There are still gaps: in some cases, existing facilities with older design features still require upgrades or compensatory measures to ensure an acceptable level of safety.

We are also focused on identifying problems with similar root causes, to prevent recurring events at nuclear facilities: that is, ensuring that lessons learned at one nuclear plant are effectively incorporated into the operational practices of all other relevant nuclear facilities.

I would like to emphasize that, regardless of the energy choices made by a given country or region, it is important that all countries lend their support to ensuring that high safety standards are implemented in nuclear facilities worldwide. Nuclear safety is of common interest and should remain a global priority.

Nuclear Security

The third key challenge - nuclear security - should come as no surprise. The September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States has naturally led to the re-evaluation of security in every industrial sector, including nuclear power. Both national and international nuclear security activities have greatly expanded in scope and volume; in the past two years, we in the IAEA have worked on every continent to help countries better control their nuclear material and radiological sources, protect their nuclear facilities and strengthen border controls. Here, too, the international community is making good progress; while much remains to be done, nuclear installations around the world have strengthened security forces, added protective barriers, and taken other measures commensurate with current security risks and vulnerabilities.

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