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Nuclear Power's Changing Future

26 June 2004 |

Twenty-two of the last 31 nuclear power plants (NPPs) connected to the world´s energy grid have been built in Asia, driven by the pressures of economic growth, natural resource scarcity and increasing populations. Of the new NPPs presently under construction, 18 of the 27 are located in Asia, while construction has virtually halted in Western European and North American countries with long-standing nuclear power programmes, says the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA reports that although four Western European countries have decided to shut down their nuclear energy plants, the future of nuclear energy in Europe and North America is still far from clear, during a period when energy needs and concerns over global warming are both rising. Only one new NPP is beginning construction in Western Europe. No new NPPs are planned in North America, although that could change very soon.

"The more we look to the future, the more we can expect countries to be considering the potential benefits that expanding nuclear power has to offer for the global environment and for economic growth," IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said in advance of a gathering of 500 nuclear power experts assembled in Moscow for the "International Conference on Fifty Years of Nuclear Power - the Next Fifty Years" (27 June - 2 July).

"The decision to adopt nuclear power cannot be made on a ´one-size-fits-all´ basis," Dr. ElBaradei added, "New nuclear plants are most attractive where energy demand is growing and alternative resources are scarce, and where energy security and reduced air pollution and greenhouse gases are a priority. But some countries have rejected nuclear power in their energy mix because of concerns about safety and waste."

The Conference examines the status and future of nuclear power 50 years after the first nuclear energy producing plant came "on-line", at a plant near Moscow in the then Soviet Union on June 26, 1954. [See box.]

Nuclear Prospects in Near and Long-Term

IAEA experts issue periodic projections on the future output of nuclear power and how it could compare with the amount of electrical power generated from conventional, fossil-fuel sources and alternative sources. However, since these projections depend on political decisions not yet taken in dozens of countries, the IAEA makes "high" and "low" projections.

The IAEA´s "low" projection makes the assumption that today's nuclear power plants will retire on schedule, and no new ones will be built beyond those already under construction or firmly planned. According to this projection, the amount of nuclear electricity generated, in terms of kilowatt-hours, would continue to increase until 2020, but would grow more slowly than other electricity sources. As a result, the nuclear share of world electricity would drop from its present 16% to 12% in 2030.

The IAEA´s "high" projection, which includes additional reasonable proposals for new nuclear plant construction, shows steady expansion. In this projection, nuclear power would generate 70% more electricity in 2030 than in 2002, but total electricity generation from all sources would grow much more.

But a much greater contrast comes from examining the longer term analyses of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), International Energy Agency and others. Rather than simply extending business-as-usual trends, long-term analyses calculate the total energy needed to raise living standards around the world for a growing global population. They also account for the depletion of fossil fuel resources and rely more on what is economically optimal in the long run and less on the socio-political status quo of today. Taking these factors into account, the middle, or median, estimate, based on the IPCC analyses, is for nuclear power to increase by 2.5 times by 2030, the equivalent of 27% of total electricity production. By 2050, the median estimate from the long-term analyses is that nuclear power will quadruple its total output. The long-term perspective thus presents a larger role for nuclear than the near-term perspective.

Nuclear Power Today: Shifting to the East

Nuclear power generates 16% (about one sixth) of the world´s electricity. There are 442 nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries. Most operating nuclear power plants are in Western Europe and North America, but most new plants under construction are in Asia. (See table - pdf). Existing plants around the world have become more productive, adding new generating capacity without new plant construction.

The United States has the most operating plants with 104. Lithuania gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest of any country. France is second, at 78%. Only 39 of the world´s 442 nuclear power plants are in developing countries, and because they are smaller than average, they account for only 5.6% of the world's nuclear power capacity. But Brazil, China and India all have nuclear power programmes. These three countries account for 40% of the world's population, and China and India in particular plan significant nuclear expansion.

Eighteen of the 27 nuclear power plants now under construction are in Asia. Twenty-two of the last 31 new nuclear plants to start up were in Asia as well. Second in terms of new construction is Eastern Europe, including Russia, with 8 NPPs being built. Four Western European nations - Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden - currently have nuclear power phase-out policies, and others have in place nuclear bans. But others have explicitly recognized nuclear power's value. Last May, for example, the Swiss electorate rejected a phase-out referendum by two-to-one. Construction will start on a new plant in Finland in 2005, and France may soon take steps to replace "nuclear with nuclear" as plants reach retirement age.

In North America, license extensions for another 20 years of operations have already been approved for 26 US nuclear plants. Eighteen more applicants are in the queue, and 32 more have submitted letters of intent, accounting altogether for 75% of US operating plants. Seven US plants that were in extended shut-down have been brought back online since 1998 and three Canadian units have been brought back online in the last two years. Also three consortia of companies have begun formal applications for combined construction and operating licenses, a new option introduced by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to streamline licensing and encourage a new plant by 2010.

Climate Change and Economics: Factors for Growth NPPs Avoid Carbon Emissions 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.

Many countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol are implementing financial measures to discourage GHG emissions. Of particular importance is the new Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) due to start in the enlarged EU on 1st January 2005. In Asia, both Japan and India have explicitly identified nuclear power as a key part of their GHG reduction strategies.

After the 2008-2012 first Kyoto commitment period ambitious nuclear power programmes in some developing countries like China and India will become especially important for limiting global GHG emissions. If trends remain the same, GHG emissions from developing countries are likely to surpass those from developed countries not too long after 2030. In 2003, India generated only 3.3% of its electricity from nuclear power, and China only 2.2%.

Costs Low at Operating Plants; New Plants Expensive

Deregulation has come to electricity markets in OECD countries. Paradoxically, it has both boosted the profitability and value of well-run existing nuclear plants, and made new nuclear investments relatively less attractive.

For most existing nuclear plants, high construction costs have been paid off, and operating costs are lower than for other major alternatives except hydropower. Any productivity increases translate directly into profit, in contrast to previous market operations under regulation. This incentive has motivated increasingly efficient management. In 1990, nuclear power plants were, on average, only available to generate electricity 71% of the time. The remaining time they were shut down for maintenance or refueling. In 2003, the average availability had increased to 84%, an improvement equal to building about 34 new 1000 MW(e) nuclear plants at almost no cost.

Cost data are most available for the US plants. For the last several years, US nuclear operating costs averaged less than 2.0 US cents per kWh, and the best nuclear plants were 40% lower. In the USA and some other countries where data are available, nuclear is now the cheapest way to produce electricity, just beating coal and well below the cost of electricity generation from natural gas. Low operating costs make nuclear electricity costs more stable and less sensitive to swings in fuel prices. Doubling the cost of nuclear fuel would increase the cost of electricity by only 2 to 4%. Doubling the cost of natural gas would increase the cost of electricity by 60 to 70%.

But new nuclear plants are expensive and can cost up to three times more to build than fossil-fueled plants. They are large, take longer to build than fossil fuel plants, and face regulatory hurdles that are often seen as a financial risk. These high construction costs are a greater disadvantage in deregulated markets that value rapid returns on investment. This contrasts with regulated markets, where returns were more assured. Particularly in Western Europe and North America, recent investments have therefore steered away from nuclear power and most often toward natural gas. This may change if gas price increases continue.

Whether nuclear power´s low and stable long-term operating costs outweigh its high construction costs depends on how fast a country´s electricity demand is growing. Nuclear growth also depends on the alternatives a country has, how it weighs the long term against the short term, and the importance it places on factors - like low greenhouse gas emissions - that are not yet included in most economic calculations.

Thus in Western Europe and North America, where electricity demand is growing relatively slowly and alternatives have been plentiful, from hydroelectricity to coal and natural gas, there has been no new construction since the completion of the French plant, Civaux-2, in 1999. Only in Finland has the economic analysis for new construction recently swung in favour of nuclear power.

Japan and South Korea, where alternatives are far fewer, have started 4 new nuclear power plants in the last 3 years, and already have 3 more under construction. Because these countries are especially vulnerable to disruptions in imports of natural gas and oil, two features of nuclear fuel supplies are particularly attractive. First, nuclear fuel is much more compact than coal, oil or natural gas. Several years´ worth of nuclear fuel can be stored directly at power plants, making them less dependent on continuous uninterrupted fuel deliveries. Second, uranium deposits are not as geographically concentrated as the world's oil and gas resources. Uranium is reported in 43 countries with sizable quantities on all continents. In 2003, Australia, Canada and the US accounted for more than 50% of the uranium mined.

China and India, where 9 new nuclear power plants have started up in the last 4 years and 10 more are under construction, have rapidly growing electricity demands. Both countries have also stressed the low air pollution and low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from nuclear power. Although low GHG emissions do not yet translate into an economic benefit in deregulated electricity markets, where governments have a more direct role in power plant investments, as in India and China, they can take this advantage into account.

In addition, several developing countries that currently do not operate nuclear power plants have approached the IAEA for objective advice and analysis to consider the appropriateness of nuclear for their needs and, if appropriate, for help with project preparation and planning for the procurement of nuclear plants.

Key Issues: Safety and Waste

Countries with nuclear bans or phase-out policies cite nuclear safety and nuclear waste among their principal concerns. Anti-nuclear groups often oppose nuclear licenses based upon safety and waste management concerns. How these public perceptions about safety and waste issues are addressed will heavily influence nuclear power's future.

Improving Nuclear Safety

Although substantial progress has been made in improving the safe operational performance of nuclear installations over the past years, a number of issues continue to be of concern. As nuclear power technology continues to spread and more countries develop indigenous plant designs, the resultant diversification highlights the importance of: ensuring quality; managing and sharing knowledge; utilizing common, internationally accepted safety standards; balancing the needs of safety and security; promoting cooperation and sharing of experience among regulatory authorities; and adapting the practices of international vendors and contractors to the diverse cultures of countries with new nuclear programs.

Analyses of reported safety events reveal operational practices that sometimes point to the need for improvements within both the regulatory authorities and operating organizations. And a number of issues related to the long term operation of nuclear facilities - such as equipment aging concerns - require further attention. The IAEA continues to work towards the development of an international consensus on sound approaches for dealing with these issues.

To this end, the IAEA has conducted hundreds of expert missions to improve the design and operation of NPPs. Every country with a nuclear programme has been the recipient of IAEA services, including design safety reviews, operational safety assessments, and initiatives to improve the use of modern safety assessment tools. Special emphasis has been placed on the RBMK (Chernobyl-type) reactor. The 15 RBMK reactors in Russia and the two in Lithuania are the only reactors of this design still in operation, and the Lithuanian reactors are scheduled for closure in 2005 and 2009. Due to the improvements achieved through IAEA and country-to-country efforts, IAEA safety experts judge that the direct safety concerns posed by the 1986 Chernobyl accident have been adequately addressed.

One of the key components of the global commitment to NPP safety is the Convention on Nuclear Safety. Prior to each meeting, countries submit national reports on all nuclear facilities and how they meet the obligations of the Convention. These submissions are then reviewed by the other parties to the Convention and openly debated and questions and criticisms exchanged.

Following Chernobyl, the IAEA additionally chartered the creation of the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG), composed of renowned safety experts from throughout the world and charged with providing advice to the IAEA on how best to pursue its safety mandate. The group has produced important advisory documents, covering topics from basic safety principles through management of operational safety to strengthening safety culture, with a special emphasis on communicating safety concerns and insights to the public and media.

"The bottom line is that there is now widespread international recognition of and commitment to the principle that NPP operations must focus on safety, first and foremost," says Tomihiro Taniguchi, Deputy Director General for Nuclear Safety.

Managing Spent Fuel and High-Level Waste

The spent fuel that comes out of a nuclear power plant is highly radioactive. Although its volume is small - all the spent fuel produced annually by the world´s 442 nuclear power plants would cover a space the size of a soccer field to a depth of 1.5 meters - it must be securely contained for tens of thousands of years. Today´s spent fuel is stored mainly on-site at the power plant where it was produced.

For the long term, the scientific and technical communities generally agree that high-level waste and spent fuel can be disposed of safely by deep geological burial in suitable hard rock, salt or clay formations, using both natural and engineered barriers to isolate the waste. Finland, Sweden and the US have made the most progress. Finland's Government and Parliament have approved a decision 'in principle' to build a final repository for spent fuel near Olkiluoto. Construction should start in 2011 and operation in 2020. Sweden has begun detailed geological investigations at two candidate sites and hopes to make a final site proposal by about 2007. In 2002, the US President and Congress decided to proceed with the disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, operations at which are planned to begin in 2010. However, in many countries around the world there has not been much progress in developing repositories for SF/HLW disposal - and resolving this issue is likely to be a key factor influencing the future development of nuclear power.

Internationally, the IAEA both assists its Member States in developing waste management and disposal strategies, and actively facilitates cooperation in waste disposal research and demonstration projects. 2003 also saw the first Review Meeting of the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. The Joint Convention is the only legally binding international instrument in this field. It has highlighted the fact that only a few countries now have firm plans for disposing of their spent fuel and is intended, among other things, to prod countries to establish long-term strategies sooner rather than later.

There is also renewed interest in the possibility of international repositories, both because of limited domestic options for waste disposal and because of new proposals to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime through international control of important parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, like uranium enrichment and spent fuel management. The IAEA is actively pursuing this issue in connection with a study of possible multilateral oversight of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Nuclear Innovation

Most new nuclear plants in the near term will be "evolutionary" designs building on proven systems while incorporating technology advances and often pursuing economies of scale. An example of the evolutionary development is the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) design that the energy company TVO in Finland just selected for its new Olkiluoto-3 plant.

"In the longer term, new innovative designs, with shorter construction times and significantly lower capital costs could help promote a new era of nuclear power," says Yuri Sokolov, IAEA´s Deputy Director General for Nuclear Energy. Some 20 IAEA Member States are currently involved in the development of innovative reactor and fuel cycle designs. Mr. Sokolov emphasizes that to be successful, innovative technologies should address issues related to nuclear safety, proliferation and waste generation - and must be able to generate electricity at competitive prices. This means greater reliance on passive safety systems, better control of nuclear materials, and design features that allow reduced construction times and lower operating costs. The IAEA has been promoting innovation through its International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) and works with other national and international innovation projects, such as the US initiated Generation IV International Forum.

As with renewables, there could be far greater future demand for nuclear energy with the successful development of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen can be produced from water using electricity, the principal product of nuclear, solar and wind power plants. This would allow these energy sources to help fuel the transportation sector, which today is 95% fuelled by oil, with virtually no carbon emissions. There are new major hydrogen research initiatives underway in particularly Japan, China, the US and Europe. All include additional innovative nuclear designs that would produce hydrogen more directly without first having to generate electricity.

Uranium Resources Abundant

The known uranium deposits recoverable with today's technology under present market conditions at current production levels will last an estimated 50 to 65 years. Uranium resources - i.e. deposits with less geological assurance, beyond current extraction technology or lacking market attractiveness, are at least twice as much. Technology advances in exploration and extraction technologies will make them available, if demand for them develops.

In addition, there are substantial unconventional resources in phosphate deposits and seawater. These contain vast amounts of very dilute uranium and their use could fuel nuclear energy for millennia if advanced extraction technologies are developed.

Spent reactor fuel still contains more than 98 percent of its original energy. About one third of the world's spent fuel is currently reprocessed and recycled to extract some of the remaining energy. Breeder reactors are capable of extracting it all, which would extend the usable fuel from known uranium resources by a factor of sixty.

"Taking all factors into account," says Mr. Sokolov, "there are certainly no resource constraints on nuclear power development in the 21st century and, most likely, for a long time thereafter."

Sustainable Development: Agreeing to Disagree

One of the outcomes of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was that all countries agreed that "the choice of nuclear energy rests with countries", but they agreed to disagree on the role of nuclear energy in sustainable development. Some consider the two fundamentally incompatible. Others see nuclear power as essential to their sustainable development strategies.

Nuclear opponents stress the continued absence of operating high-level radioactive waste disposal facilities. They argue that nuclear power presents an unacceptably high risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, as exemplified by the current debate as to whether certain countries´ nuclear programmes are confined to peaceful nuclear power or a step toward nuclear weapons. And they do not believe that nuclear power will ever be sufficiently safe to be part of sustainable development.

Nuclear proponents advocate expanding energy options for future generations. They emphasize expanding all energy supplies to bring electricity to the nearly one third of the world's population without it. For the rural poor, they agree that the best promise may be that offered by off-grid renewables. But for the urban poor and the needs of growing megacities, they say the mix needs to include large centralized power generation to match large urban demand, a role well suited to nuclear power. They stress that nuclear power reduces harmful air pollution and solid waste and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. Proponents also point out that nuclear power is ahead of other technologies in incorporating environmental and public health costs into the price of electricity.

Further information is available from the IAEA web site: iaea.org. See especially the most recent Nuclear Technology Review [pdf] and Nuclear Safety Review [pdf](newest editions available upon request) and the IAEA databases on nuclear energy.


50 Years of Civilian Nuclear Power

Fifty years ago, at 5:30 pm, June 26, 1954, in the town of Obninsk, near Moscow in the former USSR, a nuclear power plant was for the first time connected to an electricity grid to provide power to residences and businesses. Nuclear energy had crossed the divide from military uses to civilian applications.

Nuclear fission was discovered in 1939. The world's first nuclear chain reaction took place in Chicago in 1942 as part of the wartime Manhattan Project. The first nuclear weapons test was in 1945 at Alamagordo, New Mexico. And electricity was first generated from a nuclear reactor in December 1951, from EBR-I (Experimental Breeder Reactor?I) at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, USA. EBR-I produced about 100 kilowatts of electricity (kW(e)), enough to power the equipment in the small reactor building. The Obninsk reactor in 1954 produced 5000 kW(e) or 5 megawatts (MW(e)), enough to power 2,000 modern homes. A typical nuclear power plant today is about 1000 MW(e), enough for 400,000 modern homes.

Nuclear power grew rapidly in the 1970s and early 1980s. From 1970 to 1975 growth averaged 30% per year, the same as wind power recently (1998-2001). By 1987 nuclear power was generating slightly more than 16% of all electricity in the world.

Nuclear expansion slowed in the 1980s because of environmentalist opposition, high interest rates, energy conservation prompted by the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks, and the accidents at Three Mile Island (1979, USA) and Chernobyl (1986, Ukraine, USSR). The Three Mile Island accident was the first major accident at a civilian nuclear power station. It had no radiological effect on public health but increased opposition to nuclear power, and the large financial loss further discouraged new nuclear investment. The Chernobyl accident was much more severe. The accident broadened opposition to nuclear power and brought the USSR´s nuclear expansion to a halt. Worldwide growth in nuclear power slowed to the rate of worldwide growth in overall electricity use. Thus, in the 17 years since 1987, nuclear power´s share of global electricity generation has held steady around 16%.