Nuclear Power: An Evolving Scenario

by Mohamed ElBaradei

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The risks to nuclear power plants have been much in the spotlight. And while the nuclear industry has been very proactive in addressing security concerns, those efforts should not blind us to the vulnerabilities of other industrial or commercial sectors - which, if subjected to terrorist attack, could have similarly devastating effects.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation

A related but separate challenge is the prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation. Let me say at the outset that no nuclear material placed under IAEA safeguards - whether from nuclear power reactors or other sources - has ever been known to have been diverted for military purposes.

However, as recent events have demonstrated, the nonproliferation regime is under growing stress. This is visible in the failed operation of the export control regime, as evidenced by the recently discovered black market of nuclear material and equipment. It is also evident in the perilous spread of fuel cycle technology. Under the current non-proliferation regime, there is nothing illicit in a non-nuclear-weapon state having enrichment or reprocessing technology, or possessing weapon-grade nuclear material. If a State with a fully developed fuel-cycle capability and highly industrialized infrastructure were to decide, for whatever reason, to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapon within a matter of months.

To address these vulnerabilities, I have recently proposed that the most proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle - the production of new fuel, the processing of weapon-usable material, and the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste - be brought under multinational control, perhaps in a limited number of regional centres. Appropriate checks and balances would be used to preserve commercial competitiveness, to guard against the spread of sensitive technology, and to ensure supply to legitimate would-be users. I have also recently proposed a review of the export control regime, with a view to tightening controls to make the regime global and binding. And I have called for the more extensive rules of verification, under the so-called 'additional protocol', to become the global norm, to enable the IAEA to effectively detect undeclared nuclear activities.

In my view, advantages in terms of cost, safety, security and non-proliferation could accrue from this type of multinational approach.

Technological and Policy Innovation

A final challenge is innovation - encouraging the development of new reactor and fuel cycle technologies. To be successful, these innovative technologies should address concerns related to nuclear safety, proliferation and waste generation - and must be able to generate electricity at competitive prices. From a technical standpoint, this implies a greater reliance on passive safety features, enhanced control of nuclear materials through new fuel configurations, and design features that allow reduced construction times and lower operating costs. And the innovation must be more than purely technical: policy approaches must be put in place that enable reliable construction schedules, licensing review procedures, and other factors affecting cost and consumer confidence.

In view of changing market requirements, we are giving particular attention to small and medium-sized reactors, which allow a more incremental investment, provide a better match to grid capacity in developing countries, and are more easily adapted to a broad range of industrial settings and applications such as district heating, seawater desalination, or the manufacture of chemical fuels. Nearly 20 IAEA Member States are currently involved in the development of innovative reactor and fuel cycle designs. The Agency has been promoting innovation through its International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO), and is also working with other national and international innovation projects.

Decisions Down the Line

In conclusion, let me point out that the current 'holding period' for nuclear power in Europe will soon come to an end. In the near future, Europe will be faced with important energy decisions. With an increasing number of nuclear power plants reaching their original design lifetimes, Europe will have to decide how to replace its retiring nuclear power plants.

Making these decisions will depend, to some extent, on where you choose to place your emphasis - for example, on exploring available coal and natural gas resources, improving the performance and cost of renewables, or placing greater reliance on imports. What seems clear is that the only base load option available today with low carbon emissions comparable to nuclear power is large hydropower - and sites for hydropower expansion are somewhat limited in Europe.

At the end of the day, whether your decisions involve decommissioning, extending the life of existing reactors, or building the next generation of European nuclear power plants, the IAEA will be ready to assist efforts to ensure a safe and secure energy supply.

Dr. ElBaradei is Director General of the IAEA. This article is based on his speech at the European Parliament Conference on Energy Choices for Europe, May 2004, Brussels. E-mail: [email protected]

In June 2004, the IAEA launched a global press campaign on nuclear's future. Read more at www.iaea.org.

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