Nuclear Energy, Power and Other Applications: Future Prospects

by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano

New York, USA | Japan Society

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me finally to speak here at the Japan Society. As some of you may know, I was due to come last November. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy intervened. Flights from Europe were grounded and I had to cancel my trip. I am glad that I have finally made it.

I was impressed to learn of the broad range of activities which the Japan Society engages in - everything from business and politics to the performing arts. I was also impressed at how quickly you reacted to the terrible earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan in March 2011. You raised a lot of money to help the survivors.

From my own visits to the disaster zone, I know how important it was for the people of the region to feel that they could count on the solidarity of their friends throughout the world. Japan has especially good friends here in the U.S.

I would like to start today by talking about the aspect of the disaster with which I was closely involved: the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

This was a very serious and complex disaster. The International Atomic Energy Agency was active from day one in helping Japan to respond.

I went to Tokyo soon after the accident to offer IAEA assistance to then-Prime Minister Kan. I also sent expert teams to provide advice and assistance with radiation monitoring and food safety.

I wanted to go to Fukushima Daiichi during this visit, but I was told there was not enough gasoline to get me there. I never thought that this could happen in Japan. When I visited the Foreign Ministry, where I worked for 30 years, the corridors were dark because electricity was scarce. That was something else which I had never seen before.

In July 2011, I finally got to visit the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. A lot of clean-up work had already been done by that stage. But the evidence of just how powerful and destructive nature can be was still all around us. It was shocking.

I am used to visiting restricted sites and wearing protective clothing. This is usually a formality. This time, I was very conscious of the real risk of contamination. We had to be very sure to tighten our masks properly and protect ourselves completely.

As we toured the site, we were only allowed off the bus for a few minutes at a time because radiation levels were so high. We wore heavy protective suits, weighed down with ice to keep us cool. Even so, it was uncomfortably hot and humid. Just wearing the suit was exhausting. It gave me great respect for the brave workers at the site who wore these outfits all day. They were working in very difficult and dangerous conditions to bring the facility back under control.

I remember a windowless room in one of the few buildings on the site which was still useable after the tsunami. It was packed with workers, many of them asleep on the floor between shifts. There were letters and cards on the walls from family members and from strangers, thanking them for their work and offering encouragement.

As you know, the reactors at Fukushima were eventually brought under control. But the clean-up work will take years. The IAEA will continue to assist Japan.

We are now well into the post-accident phase. Our Member States adopted an IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety in September 2011, which is now being implemented.

The Action Plan is very detailed and covers many areas, so I will mention just a few examples of the things that have been done.

Virtually all Member States with nuclear power plants have conducted stress tests to assess how well facilities are likely to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. Many practical steps have been taken, such as equipping plants with portable diesel generators and building higher protective walls.

As you may know, the absence of backup electricity was one of the main factors that caused the loss of control over the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.

Countries are upgrading their emergency preparedness and response capabilities. IAEA Safety Standards are being reviewed. Our programme of expert peer review services is being expanded.

Already, it is fair to say that nuclear power is safer than it was before the Fukushima Daiichi accident. But the process of ensuring that the right lessons are learned will continue for many years. It is essential that the Action Plan is implemented in full.

Last December, the Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety took place in Fukushima Prefecture. The goal was to help strengthen nuclear safety worldwide.

In their concluding statement, the Co-Presidents stressed that strengthening nuclear safety is a continuous process and that there should be no complacency in safety matters. I strongly agree.

They also emphasized the importance of strengthening the central role of the IAEA in promoting international cooperation in nuclear safety.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident was a wake-up call for everyone involved in nuclear power. It reminded us that safety can never be taken for granted, even in advanced industrial countries with considerable experience of using nuclear energy.

The lasting legacy of the accident will be a much more intense focus on safety. I am sure we can all agree that this is very much to be welcomed.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite the accident, nuclear power remains a growth area globally. This is very different from the situation after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, when nuclear power virtually stopped in its tracks.

Growth is likely to be slower than we anticipated before the accident. But our latest projections show a steady rise in the number of nuclear power plants in the world in the next 20 years.

Most of the new nuclear power reactors which are planned or under construction are in Asia. Established users such as China, India, South Korea and Russia plan significant expansions of their nuclear power programmes.

The United Arab Emirates recently became the first new country in 27 years to start building a nuclear power plant. Countries as diverse as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Poland, Turkey and Belarus plan to follow suit.

Nuclear energy offers many benefits. It can help to improve energy security. It can reduce the impact of volatile fossil fuel prices and mitigate the effects of climate change. For rapidly developing countries such as India, which I visited last month, it can make a vitally important contribution to growth.

I believe that other sources of energy such as renewables also have an important contribution to make. But they are not in a position to provide the amounts of reliable base-load electricity which a modern economy needs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Nuclear power can do that.

In June, an International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century will take place in St. Petersburg, Russia. It will provide a valuable opportunity to consider nuclear power's long-term contribution to sustainable development.

In Japan itself, the future of nuclear power remains uncertain. Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power was deeply shaken by the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

Right after the accident, foreign visitors to Japan were impressed by the absence of crime and looting in the regions devastated by the tsunami. It is true that people were generally quiet and orderly. But I also saw frustration. People were angry at the nuclear industry for letting this happen.

When I visited Japan at that time, I did not expect people to be grateful to me for coming. But they were. I think this was because they felt isolated and abandoned and my visit provided some reassurance that they were not alone. They saw the IAEA as part of the solution.

The IAEA continues to do everything possible to justify that confidence.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to say a few words about another very important aspect of our work which is less well known: making nuclear technology available to our Member States for peaceful purposes.

The IAEA technical cooperation programme helps countries in areas such as human and animal health, food safety and security, agriculture, and environmental monitoring.

Every September, we hold a two-day Scientific Forum in Vienna. These events bring together technical experts and government officials from all over the world to focus on a particular scientific topic.

In 2010, the subject was cancer control in developing countries. In 2011, the focus was on nuclear techniques related to water. Last year, the Scientific Forum was devoted to nuclear techniques related to food. This year we will focus on the environment.

Cancer control in developing countries remains of special importance to me.

In 2010, when I had been in office just a few months, I was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I attended a session on breast cancer. Most of the participants were doctors or health experts from Europe and the U.S. The main theme was at what age women should start undergoing screening for breast cancer. I raised my hand and said: "You are talking about the best time to start screening. But in many developing countries, millions of women have no access to screening at all. In fact, they have no access to any form of treatment."

I said it was vital that the problem of cancer in developing countries should be put high on the global health agenda. And I have made this issue a high priority for the IAEA.

Cancer was long thought of as a disease of rich countries, but that is no longer true. Today, some 70 percent of cancer cases are diagnosed in developing countries. Many of these countries are poorly prepared to respond.

There is a shortage of around 5 000 radiotherapy machines in low- and middle-income countries. There are not enough well-trained specialists. As a result, around three-quarters of patients are diagnosed too late for effective treatment. This means that hundreds of thousands of people do not have access to treatment that could save their lives.

The IAEA supports over 130 projects in cancer diagnosis, management and treatment. Oncology and radiotherapy centres are being established with our support in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea and Mozambique. We provide extensive training to health professionals. One of my major goals is to establish a Cancer Training Centre at our laboratory complex outside Vienna within the next few years.

Sometimes, the problem is not just about access to modern technology. In some parts of West Africa, there is a stigma attached to cancer. Women who suspect they may have breast cancer are ashamed and they leave their families. They hide away and do not get treatment. Yet, as you know, in developed countries, breast cancer is increasingly treatable. So this is a huge tragedy. Governments are working hard to try to change such attitudes. And the IAEA is doing everything it can to help developing countries establish comprehensive cancer programmes, in cooperation with the WHO.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you see, the work of the IAEA covers many very different fields. I have not tried to cover all of them today. In particular, I have not mentioned our key role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, or helping to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorists.

But I will now be happy to take your questions on these, or on any other issues which you wish to raise.

Thank you.

Last update: 21 October 2014