Some 60 countries have turned to the IAEA for guidance as they consider whether introducing nuclear power may help solve an expected and sharp future jump in global energy demand, as well as improve the lives of the 1.4 billion people who lack access to sufficient, clean energy.
Experts project that global energy demand will rise by more than 50% by 2030, with some 70% or so of that increase seen coming from developing countries. At the same time, across the globe many have no access to electricity, which is essential if poverty is to be halved, or the world´s poorest are to enjoy better nutrition, health and education, all key objectives of the United Nations´ Millennium Development Goals.
"Energy services provided by electricity can really help developing countries to improve their productivity," says Holger Rogner, an IAEA expert. "It extends the day; education can take place in the evening. In the agricultural sector, water can be pumped for irrigation. Energy connects small businesses to their markets. It frees people, particularly women and children, from collecting firewood and enables them to engage in more productive activities."
As a result, a number of countries, including developing ones, are weighing up the benefits and challenges of the nuclear option and working with the IAEA to ensure they make the best choice.
"We expect between 10 to 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plant online by 2030," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has said.
IAEA expert Anne Starz adds, "There are probably 11 or 12 countries that are actively developing the infrastructure for a nuclear power programme. The region where we see the largest number of active countries is in Southeast Asia. There is also interest in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. Recently, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates ordered their first nuclear power plants."
Nuclear Power: A Feasible Option for the Developing World?
There are significant hurdles to introducing nuclear power in the developing world; it is an expensive, long-term commitment, with lead times of at least 10 years needed to set up the appropriate technical, regulatory and safety infrastructure.
"If you need energy now, that´s not very satisfactory. There´s also the issue of responsibility that comes along with nuclear power. It´s a 100-year plus commitment and you have to deal with long-term issues such as waste disposal and decommissioning," Rogner says.
Nor is it cheap. A commercial power plant today with 1 000 megawatts requires an investment of some US $2 to 4 billion or more. Although the specific costs of renewables providing electricity at a similar reliability to nuclear power are not dissimilar, they can be deployed in much smaller units with lower total capital requirements and are therefore easier to finance. However, once built, nuclear plants are relatively inexpensive to run.
Nuclear power has other advantages. For one, it delivers a steady supply of energy, called baseload electricity. "When you talk about renewables, for example, the wind doesn´t always blow and the sun doesn´t always shine, but nuclear power contributes to reliable baseload (24/7) supply," Starz says.
Second, it provides electricity at stable and predictable costs for many decades to come. "You know what you get for a period of up to 60 years. Uranium is such a small part of overall costs that even a large price swing would have only a marginal effect on generating costs," Rogner says.
Third, it helps avoid climate disruptions, emitting as few of the greenhouse gases driving climate change as renewables, such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power.
The IAEA helps countries decide on an optimal energy mix to meet future energy demand, building skills in developing countries so they can chart out their own energy futures. National experts learn how to look at their own demand and supply situations and to evaluate policy options for effectiveness, enabling them to make educated decisions, which may or may not include nuclear energy.
Take the example of Kuwait. Though rich in oil, Kuwait was looking for more fresh water and the best national energy mix. The analysis discovered that the most cost-effective solution would be to introduce nuclear power plants and finance the heavy construction costs through the additional oil export revenues from the oil previously used for electricity generation and desalination.
If it is decided that a country´s mix will indeed include nuclear power, the IAEA works with the country´s experts to ensure they consider and prepare for all the issues they need to face, including safety, security, international legal frameworks and national capabilities.
"We provide guidance and standards for safety and security, in particular, and in other areas. The IAEA creates a forum for countries where they can communicate clearly, in a transparent and open way, about the national justification for a nuclear power programme, building confidence in what they are doing. International experts who carry out IAEA activities bring the world´s best practices to these new nuclear power programmes," Starz says.