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International Cooperation Vital for Nuclear Renaissance


by Yukiya Amano*

OpEd, Le Monde, 7 March 2010

(See Related Story, 8 March 2010)

More than twenty new states, including many developing countries, could bring their first nuclear power plants online within two decades. This is a cause for celebration. Nuclear power can make a major contribution to economic development and help to mitigate climate change. It should not be the sole prerogative of the rich.

But introducing nuclear power is a highly complex business. Ever closer international cooperation will be needed to ensure that it is done properly.

I therefore welcome President Sarkozy´s initiative in hosting next week´s International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy, which I am confident will - in the words of the IAEA Statute - help to "accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world."

As the use of nuclear power increases, suppliers of technology such as France have a special responsibility which goes well beyond the handover of a nuclear plant. They must be reliable partners for operators throughout the lifetime of power plants.

The new customers, for their part, have a responsibility to put the infrastructure in place and to implement the highest standards of safety and security, create a sound legal framework and establish an independent regulatory structure. They must be aware that they are taking on a responsibility stretching hundreds of years ahead, if we take nuclear waste disposal into account.

Despite the financial crisis, around 60 countries are considering introducing nuclear power. There are now fifty-six reactors under construction throughout the world. Major expansions are planned in China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and India.

This new interest in nuclear energy reflects mainly a growing global demand for energy, as well as concerns about climate change, dwindling reserves of oil and gas and uncertainty of supply of fossil fuels. Nuclear power is a mature technology. Its performance and economics have improved in the last two decades, and the greatly strengthened safety and security record of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster has added to its attractiveness.

Deciding whether to introduce nuclear power is a sovereign national choice. For those countries which are interested in introducing nuclear power, the IAEA provides assistance at all stages of the process. We have developed basic concepts to ensure that nuclear energy is developed beneficially, responsibly and sustainably.

Beneficially means that nuclear energy must be cost-effective and reliable and offer clear benefits such as reducing carbon emissions.

Responsibly means countries must abide by the highest safety and security standards and implement IAEA safeguards so the Agency can verify that nuclear materials are being used exclusively for peaceful purposes. All countries with nuclear power should adhere to the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. All countries are encouraged to implement a so-called Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which boosts transparency by giving the Agency´s inspectors more authority.

Sustainably means that nuclear energy must be available on a predictable basis over many decades to justify the enormous costs of building nuclear power reactors, and in a manner which is not harmful to the environment.

Sustainability requires that countries considering nuclear power have confidence that they will have access to a supply of nuclear fuel. Late last year, the IAEA´s Board of Governors approved a Russian proposal to create a reserve of uranium that I, as Director General, could make available to a country if it was cut off from its supplies for other than commercial reasons.

No country can develop its nuclear power programme in isolation. The technology is highly complex and recourse must be had to many suppliers in many countries. Confidence makes international markets in uranium, nuclear equipment and services work smoothly.

To help newcomers prepare all aspects of the infrastructure for nuclear power, the IAEA has developed milestones to guide them. This process also gives neighbouring countries confidence that all critical issues have been dealt with.

There is growing recognition that nuclear power is clean, efficient and safe and that it can help to mitigate global warming. I firmly believe that its benefits should be made available to all countries which want it.

* Yukiya Amano is Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This article reflects his personal views.