Nuclear Power and the Global Challenges of Energy Security

Vienna, Austria

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

London, United Kingdom
World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium

Let me begin by thanking the World Nuclear Association, both personally and on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for honouring us with the WNA award for Distinguished Contribution to the Peaceful Worldwide use of Nuclear Technology. I would also like to take this opportunity to salute John Ritch, the WNA Director General, for the energetic leadership he has brought to this organization, and for his commitment to promoting the use of peaceful nuclear technology for development.

Humanity today faces two urgent and daunting challenges: the pressing need for development in many parts of the world; and the desire for a more effective system of international security. In my view, these two challenges are interlinked, in ways that are not always understood.

Energy is essential for development. Nearly every aspect of development - from reducing poverty to improving health care - requires reliable access to modern energy services. When these development needs remain unaddressed, the resulting misery often leads to conflicts and violence, which in turn affect development efforts and impact on regional and global stability.

Consider the global energy imbalance. Roughly 1.6 billion people live without access to electricity; and 2.4 billion rely on traditional biomass because they have no access to modern fuels. I have seen this firsthand on my visits to many countries, particularly in Africa. In some African countries the per capita electricity consumption is as low as 50 kilowatt-hours per year. That translates to an average availability of 6 watts - much less than a normal light bulb - for each person.

To put this in perspective: the developed countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), on average, consume electricity at a rate per capita of 8600 kilowatt-hours per year - roughly 170 times higher.

The expanded G8 Summit in St. Petersburg last summer emphasized the importance of "global energy security". During my participation at this summit, I emphasized that, in my view, global energy security means fulfilling the energy needs of all countries and peoples - including the one-quarter of our fellow human beings I just mentioned who have no access to modern energy systems.

Energy security today is dominated by three challenges.

First, the increasingly accelerated growth in energy consumption and demand. In the last half-century, energy use tripled. And as John Ritch often points out, over the next several decades, if current trends continue, humankind will use more energy than in all of previous history combined.

According to the World Energy Outlook 2006, published by the International Energy Agency of the OECD, if current consumption trends and government policies continue, we will see a 53% increase in global energy consumption by 2030 - and 70% of the coming growth in demand will be from developing countries.

These growth trends exacerbate the second challenge: the limitations in energy supply, and the resulting competition for resources. Each nation seeks to secure its own channels of supply, through various strategies. Many countries focus on diversifying their suppliers and sources of energy, to construct a buffer against fluctuations in fuel market prices, and against the potential instability of political relationships with large oil and natural gas producers.

This may not seem like a new challenge: the competition for resources is a story as old as humanity. But as the American journalist Thomas Friedman has pointed out, everyone stands to lose "if the Great American Dream and the Great Chinese Dream and the Great Indian Dream and the Great Russian Dream come to be seen as mutually exclusive in energy terms." Clearly, the stakes are high. But there is still more to this picture. What is to happen to those countries at the bottom of the economic development ladder, who cannot compete effectively with their giant neighbors?

The third challenge is environmental impact. The consequences of carbon emissions from fossil fuels include pollution and climate change effects, which could lead to higher global temperatures, rising sea levels that would threaten to submerge coastal regions, prolonged droughts, more frequent violent storms, and threats to many species.

This brings us, naturally, to the role of nuclear power. The renewed interest in nuclear power that we have been witnessing in recent years is driven, in large part, because it offers at least partial solutions to some of these energy security challenges. Nuclear power emits almost no greenhouse gases. Unlike many renewable sources of energy, nuclear power plants can provide the reliable, large-scale electricity necessary to power the grids of large urban areas. Uranium resources are in good supply, and renewed expectations for nuclear power are prompting additional uranium exploration and discovery. The cost of nuclear generated electricity has become competitive with other sources. And the past two decades have seen significant improvements in nuclear plant reliability and a progressively improved safety record.

I am not suggesting that nuclear power, by itself, is a panacea for global energy security. But if the plans and expressions of intent we are witnessing from many countries come to fruition, nuclear power is likely to have an increasingly significant role in the global energy mix.

Let me briefly outline four additional issues that the international nuclear community must continue to address if nuclear power is to fulfil its full potential as a source of energy worldwide.

First, we must guard relentlessly against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This means maintaining a strong, independent verification organization - the IAEA - with the sufficient authority and resources to carry out its mission. It means keeping nuclear material stockpiles secure, and tightening export controls. It means creating mechanisms to assure the supply of nuclear fuel to bona fide users, as a first step towards eventually instituting multinational control over sensitive nuclear operations such as uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. And it goes hand-in-hand with the urgent need for more rapid progress on nuclear disarmament - because the possession of nuclear weapons by a limited number of countries inevitably drives others to covet and pursue them.

Second, the strong performance of existing nuclear plants - in terms of safety, security and economic operation - must be sustained. The first responsibility for this strong performance rests on the shoulders of many of you present today: the owners and operators of nuclear facilities. Safety and transparency in nuclear operations are the keys to public confidence. It is also incumbent on national governments and industry leaders to ensure the development of the next generation of nuclear professionals who will be needed to carry on this performance in the future - an objective upheld and promoted by the World Nuclear University.

Third, we must innovate. The lessons learned from half a century of operating nuclear power plants provide rich insights for how to design new, innovative reactors and fuel cycles with enhanced features for safety, security and proliferation resistance - while also driving down even further the costs of nuclear generated electricity.

And fourth, nuclear power cannot be an exclusive solution for wealthy countries. For the past five decades, the use of nuclear power has been concentrated in the industrialized world. In terms of new construction, however, the pattern is different; 16 of the 30 reactors now being built are in developing countries. Given trends in energy growth, and the importance of energy in development, we can expect this pattern to continue.

But the challenges of introducing nuclear power in a developing country are formidable, and there is more work to be done in addressing these challenges. Innovation, in terms of both technology and policy, should be focused more intensively on developing new designs and approaches that make nuclear power a safe, secure, affordable and practical solution for those developing countries that choose the nuclear option.

In the area of design, for example, there is a need for small and medium size reactors. Successful production of safe and affordable reactors in this size range will be essential if nuclear power is to be a feasible option for countries and regions with small electrical grids.

Shared regional approaches to nuclear power infrastructure, construction and operation may also be feasible. A good example is the ongoing cooperation among the Baltic States on energy strategies, which now includes collaboration with Poland on plans to construct a nuclear power plant to help meet regional electricity demands.

Conclusion

In the Atoms for Peace speech given by US President Eisenhower in 1953 - the speech that paved the way for the creation of the IAEA - he declared that a special purpose of Atoms for Peace would be "to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world."

That vision has yet to be realized. And it should not be taken to mean that nuclear power is the solution for all countries, or for all developing countries. But I would reiterate what I said at the outset - that the global challenges of security and development are interlinked, and that addressing the energy security needs of all countries will be a key to progress on both fronts. It is incumbent upon us to see to it that nuclear power will fulfil its potential in addressing these challenges.

Last update: 17 November 2014