The Future of Nuclear Power: An IAEA Perspective

Vienna, Austria

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

It is a pleasure for me to address this meeting of the German Atomic Forum, here in Berlin.

My intention today is to survey the prospects for nuclear power as seen from the perspective of the IAEA.

Nuclear Power and World Energy Requirements

Over the past 50 years, nuclear power has become an important part of the energy mix in many countries. At the end of last year, some 434 nuclear power reactors in over 30 countries produced about 16% of world electricity supply. Accumulated operating experience exceeded 9000 reactor-years. In 1999, sixteen countries relied on nuclear power for 25% or more of their electricity needs.

Global energy demand, particularly for electricity, is rising, with the main driving force coming from the developing world. The World Energy Council has estimated that electricity demand will triple in the next fifty years. It is clear therefore that in the coming years many countries will have to make critical decisions on the nature and extent of new investments in energy production. These decisions will be influenced by several factors, primarily the preference for low price and low risk, and energy independence. The need for energy supplies that are environmentally benign is also becoming an increasingly important factor in view of the growing concern about possible global climate change.

Nuclear power is likely to be widely recognized in the next two decades as one of the few options that can help countries meet large scale electricity demand with virtually no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the 1997 Kyoto Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, industrialized countries agreed to lower their GHG emissions, about half of which are produced by fossil fuels used for energy generation. Apart from nuclear power, or hydropower (which has limited growth potential), there are as yet no other economically viable, minimal-GHG-emission options for large scale power generation. The extensive use of renewable resources - which should be encouraged and supported - also does not appear to be close at hand. Nuclear power can thus satisfy growing energy needs while assisting industrialized countries in their efforts to comply with the carbon dioxide emission targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol. For developing countries, which do not have any such targets to meet, an advantage of using nuclear power is the lower level of emissions that cause smog and acidification, with a corresponding improvement in air quality. This general benefit will assume greater significance in the future because of growing urbanization around the world.

These environmental considerations might suggest that the share of nuclear power in global energy production will grow, or at least remain stable. However, IAEA projections, based on business as usual scenarios, point to its steady decline. Despite a slight increase in absolute terms until 2010, the share of nuclear power as a proportion of global electricity production is projected to fall, to about 13% in 2010 and to around 10% in 2020. This is primarily because of public concern in many countries over safety, particularly in relation to waste management and transport, which is affecting decisions to construct new plants and also the continued operation of existing plants. In addition to safety issues, the high initial capital costs of new nuclear plants and concerns about economic competitiveness have tended to focus investment elsewhere, particularly on combined cycle gas plants.

Although it is clear that concerns about climate change can provide a new window of opportunity for the nuclear power option, it is unlikely that these concerns will, by themselves, lead to a resurgence of investment in nuclear power. Nor can safety, in and of itself, guarantee its future. The availability of economically competitive nuclear power will also not be enough. It is certain that a profitable plant that is not safe will close down. Conversely, a safe plant that is not profitable will also close down. Lastly, even with safety and profitability, a plant that does not enjoy public confidence is likely to close earlier than planned. Thus, only if the industry consistently reflects the three crucial attributes of safety, competitiveness and, most importantly, public support will the long term future of nuclear power be assured and its downward growth projection reversed.

Safety

Let us first look at safety. It is widely recognized today that a demonstrated high level of nuclear, radiation and radioactive waste safety will be a determining factor for the future use of nuclear technology, and that a good safety record will depend upon the use of appropriate technology, effective regulatory practices and well qualified and trained staff.

A major reason for this heightened emphasis on safety derives from the Chernobyl accident of 1986, which was a turning point in public opinion on nuclear power. It highlighted three important points. First, that the health and environmental effects of nuclear accidents do not respect national boundaries - hence the importance of international co-operation. Second, that nuclear safety requires continuing investment in safety culture and advanced technology. Third, that the long term acceptability and credibility of nuclear power will depend on a consistent track record of safety and transparency.

During the 1990s, Member States of the IAEA were able to significantly strengthen the nuclear safety regime in two directions. The first involved a movement towards the development of comprehensive nuclear safety norms. The second was increased openness to peer review of safety practices and procedures, and greater transparency.

Several important international conventions have been negotiated under the IAEA's auspices - conventions relating to notification and assistance in case of nuclear accidents, the physical protection of nuclear material, civil liability for nuclear damage, the safety of power plants and the safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste.

The Agency has also continued to develop detailed international safety standards, which constitute a basic tool and important guide for national regulators. By next year, the IAEA expects to complete the revision of its entire set of safety standards - some seventy documents in all - and develop standards where no agreement exists as yet, such as in the area of the disposal of high level waste. But the key to an effective safety regime is the full application of conventions and standards at the work place, with particular attention paid to managerial and organizational practices. Throughout the past decade, the IAEA has expanded the range of services it offers to States and nuclear operators in this area. These include various types of review missions, training, the fostering of scientific research, technical co-operation and information exchange.

An important and long standing concern has been the safe transport of radioactive materials. The Agency's contribution in this field has been through the development of transport regulations. These regulations, the first set of which was published in 1961, establish standards of safety which provide an acceptable level of control of radiation to persons, property and the environment associated with the transport of radioactive materials. They are re-examined from time to time to take account of technological advances and operational experience, for example in such areas as surface contamination. The regulations have been integrated into the national regulatory documents of many countries and into the codes, standards and regulations of a number of international organizations that use them to ensure safe transport by different modes. In order to assist its Member States in the implementation of these regulations, the Agency has recently established a "Transport Safety Appraisal Service" that evaluates national practices on request.

Last year, the Agency also focused on assisting its Member States manage the Y2K computer system problem. In this regard, I am pleased to note that by 1 January, all countries operating nuclear power plants had confirmed to the IAEA that no incident with implications for safety had occurred at any nuclear power plant as a result of the transition to the year 2000.

The application of advanced technology in nuclear power plants is another important method of enhancing safety. Over the past decade, there have been improvements in practically every field of nuclear power technology. Of particular importance is the development of a new generation of plants with "passive" safety systems. By relying on natural laws, the properties of materials and internally stored energy, these systems reduce the need for early human intervention in the event of an anomaly. Through information exchange and other support activities, the Agency encourages and facilitates research and development in this important area. We are also about to embark on new projects in the field of innovative reactors and fuel cycles, such as proliferation-resistant reactors and the transmutation of long lived actinides and fission products.

While the safety record for nuclear power plants indicates continuous improvement over the past ten years, there are several areas that still require attention, one of the more important being the handling and disposal of wastes, particularly high level wastes. Other areas include continued improvement of safety culture in States, completion of in-depth safety analyses for nuclear power plants and improving the independence and effectiveness of regulatory bodies.

On the issue of waste safety, an IAEA sponsored international symposium held last year reviewed experience from around the world and reconfirmed that technologies exist for the safe, environmentally sound and cost effective management of radioactive wastes. The opinion of waste management experts is that high level wastes and spent fuel can be safely isolated in certain types of deep geological repositories. Furthermore, the technology to reprocess spent fuel and condition the high level wastes resulting from this procedure with a view to final disposal have been applied for decades in some IAEA Member States and is commercially available today. Encapsulation plants for spent fuel have also been built, including one in Germany. And research is continuing on underground facilities to study the behaviour of high level wastes, spent fuel, engineered barriers and the geological environment under repository conditions. However, in order not to foreclose options, a number of Member States now plan to dispose of waste in a manner that is reversible, so that the waste can, if necessary, be retrieved.

What is important is for States to develop clear and well defined waste disposal programmes that are transparent to the public, and in the formulation of which the public is involved and is kept informed. Another important step in gaining public acceptance of geological disposal is to demonstrate safe disposal technologies. In my view, only when high level waste or spent nuclear fuel repositories are built will the public look upon the waste issue as having been resolved. In this connection, the putting into operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, USA - the first operating deep geological facility designed to dispose of long lived wastes - is an encouraging sign.

In summary, public confidence in nuclear power can be enhanced only if it is demonstrated that safety culture is being maintained at the highest possible level in terms of both technical and human aspects. Incidents are a risk in all industrial sectors. In the nuclear industry, however, every effort should be made to avoid them or reduce them to the absolute minimum. The accident last year in September at the Tokaimura Nuclear Fuel Conversion Facility in Japan is an illustration of what can happen if the required level of vigilance is not maintained.

The Competitiveness of Nuclear Power

I turn now to economic competitiveness. Significant changes are occurring in the electricity sector in many parts of the world, including Germany, brought about by liberalization, privatization and increased competition. These changes have focused attention and underlined the vital importance of cost effective performance. Information exchange and peer review services such as those provided by the IAEA and the World Association of Nuclear Operators have made important contributions to improving the performance of many nuclear plants. It is essential, however, that this emphasis on efficiency and profitability not be allowed to overshadow safety. Indeed, any attempt to cut corners will increase the likelihood of mistakes in an industry with regard to which public opinion is hypersensitive.

The second point I would like to make with regard to profitability is that investment in research and development is an important key to the future growth of nuclear power. Only through such means can we realistically expect to achieve greater efficiency, enhance public confidence and make an impact in the global energy market. Scientific and technical research must focus not only on how to improve nuclear fuel cycle technology, but also on how to develop new designs of reactors of different sizes, with higher efficiency and greater availability, shorter construction times and lower capital costs. Applying these gains commercially will also require the development of safety features that are consonant with innovative nuclear fuel cycles and power plants.

In this connection, the Agency is assisting South Africa in carrying out a feasibility study and safety review of a new design, the 114 MW(e) Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. This design, based primarily on technology developed in Germany, has attractive features such as its modular character, inherent safety and potential for low generating costs.

I should stress that the IAEA considers the choice of nuclear power and of a particular energy mix to be a national decision that can be made only in the light of national priorities and considerations. And yet, for States considering the nuclear power option, there is a clear need to have the most accurate information and the best tools to make informed energy supply decisions.

Since 1992, and in co-operation with eight other international organizations, the Agency has been pursuing an intensive programme of helping Member States to develop their own capacity for decision making in the energy sector in general, and in the electricity sector in particular. By using a number of sophisticated databases and methodologies, States can conduct their own objective comparative evaluations of available energy options, taking into account environmental, economic and risk factors throughout the fuel cycle. Over 90 countries are presently using some of these tools, many under the aegis of two major IAEA co-ordinated research projects. Several international organizations, such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, also use data from these programs when considering loans in the power generation sector.

Comparative assessments of different energy sources must take into account the full costs of different energy options, including their environmental impact, such as GHG emissions and other pollutants, if we are to take seriously the threat of global climate change. The IAEA is contributing to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is working with the United Nations and other organizations to prepare a world energy assessment as a basis for a meeting in 2001 of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Our objective is to ensure that nuclear power is given a full and fair hearing. The Agency is also analysing the implications for nuclear power of the various flexible mechanisms envisaged in the Kyoto Protocol. Of particular interest is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which aims to create a means of transferring the credit for reducing emissions from projects in developing countries to the sponsors of those projects among the industrialized countries, the so-called Annex 1 Parties to the Convention. The IAEA is conducting a preliminary analysis of the implications of the CDM for the prospects for nuclear power. Among the scenarios being considered are two Chinese case studies on the application of the CDM to the construction of nuclear power plants instead of coal fired plants of similar capacity.

Public Support

Let me now turn to the critical issue of public support, which is key to the future of nuclear power. The public's understanding of the contribution of nuclear science and technology to human well-being has proven to be a crucial factor in the fortunes of nuclear power. There is clearly a great deal of public misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about radiation and nuclear power plants. This is not entirely surprising, since nuclear science and technology are complex subjects. Nevertheless, the complexity of a subject should not result in the continued existence of misperceptions. Public understanding is a prerequisite for public acceptance. And public acceptance is the key that will allow nuclear power to realize what many informed observers see as its considerable potential. The role of the industry and nuclear societies in promoting public understanding cannot be overemphasized. Key to this process - as you in the German Atomic Forum have recently acknowledged in your own approach to the public - is a new culture of openness, transparency and objectivity.

While the IAEA's public information programme is modest, the quality, relevance and objective nature of its activities are widely appreciated. We continue to hold public information seminars in different parts of the world. And last June, I approved a new public information and outreach policy that is intended to enhance the Agency's interaction with the media, civil society and opinion leaders. This policy also aims to improve the quality and timeliness of information on all aspects of the Agency's work. Part of this effort will focus on establishing a dialogue with private industry groups and other non-traditional partners such as nuclear research centres, while preserving the intergovernmental and non-commercial character of the Agency.

In this connection, the Agency organized an "Industry Forum" in Vienna earlier this week to interact with industry representatives and identify areas of common interest. The IAEA needs to know what private industry's thinking is on a number of key issues, such as safety, economics, technology trends and the back end of the fuel cycle. With that knowledge, we can structure our programmes better, with the added confidence that they are supportive, relevant and attuned to changing circumstances. Another meeting was held by the Agency last month on the role of nuclear research centres (NRCs) in the 21st century. The meeting brought together senior managers of NRCs in Member States to: exchange ideas; survey some of the challenges facing NRCs in the future; review their interaction with their governments, industry, academia and the public; and define ways in which mutual collaboration could be used to enhance the technology and the possible role of the IAEA.

I should note, however, that even the most effective IAEA information programme can yield only limited benefits in facilitating a balanced public view of nuclear power. A climate that is conducive to the making of rational energy decisions can only be achieved if the nuclear industry, along with those who recognize its importance, carries the major burden of educating the public as to the relative benefits of nuclear energy. The IAEA is certainly ready to help in this important endeavour.

While on the subject of public confidence, I should also add that public attitudes towards nuclear energy are often influenced by apprehension about the possible misuse of peaceful nuclear activities - both equipment and knowledge - for military purposes. The attempts by Iraq in this regard were clearly not reassuring. The IAEA's current efforts to strengthen its verification (or safeguards) system - so as to both cover declared activities and to detect possible undeclared activities - should go some way towards providing assurances to the international community about States that are subject to the non-proliferation regime. But we need to continue to work towards the universality of that regime, towards nuclear disarmament and towards a better system of collective security. These are the best measures against the use of nuclear energy for military purposes, and can only enhance public confidence in nuclear energy and technology.

Conclusion

Three decades ago, nuclear energy was euphorically received. Today, in parts of the world, its future is in doubt, and accurate long term forecasts are difficult to make. Indeed, nuclear science and nuclear technology in general are now accompanied by a degree of apprehension. However, the world would not be well served if an important energy source were to be foreclosed prematurely or unnecessarily. It is now clear that safety, competitiveness and public confidence are the global factors controlling the future of nuclear power. A strong and effective global safety regime, well focused programmes aimed at more competitive nuclear technology, and a culture of co-operation, communication and transparency are, and must be seen as, the priorities of the day. Only when they are fully in place will the long term viability of nuclear power be assured.

Last update: 18 November 2014