• English
  • العربية
  • 中文
  • Français
  • Русский
  • Español

You are here

The Case for Nuclear Power

Prague, Czech Republic

Two years ago I addressed the General Meeting of WANO in Paris, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to do so again here in Prague. I am convinced that - above all for environmental reasons - an expanded use of nuclear power is an indispensible part of the future global energy mix. In few places in the world are the environmentally damaging effects of the enormous burning of fossil fuels as clearly seen and felt as in parts of the host country of this WANO session.

WANO and the IAEA have important roles to play in helping to bring about on a global basis the consistent good functioning of nuclear power that will help to improve public acceptance of the nuclear contribution to a global sustainable energy policy.

We all know that the world will come to use much more energy - in particular electricity. The most recent (1995) report of the World Energy Council (WEC) includes a middle course scenario under which global consumption of electricity may increase by about 75% up to 2020 and nearly triple by 2050. This scenario assumes a continued reliance on nuclear power, while another scenario would phase out nuclear power. It is important to be aware that all such scenarios are extrapolations of current experiences and opinions. Scenarios are not predictions. Opinions and public attitudes change. Views about nuclear power could change very much in five or ten years. A bit more evidence of global warming, or higher gas prices or the introduction of advanced nuclear reactors could affect attitudes. But we know for certain something about the growing need for electricity and we do know what we can do to increase the attractiveness of the nuclear power option.

Developing countries such as Bangladesh and Tanzania presently use less than 100 kWh per caput of electricity each year, while the figure for my home country, Sweden, is some 15000 kWh. Electricity consumption per caput in the Republic of Korea rose from 70 kWh per year in 1960 to 5000 kWh per year now, in tandem with growing prosperity. While there is little controversy about the rise in demand foreseen for electricity, it is an open question where this electricity is to come from. At present, fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - contribute about 63% to total electricity production; hydropower represents about 19% and nuclear about 17%. Geothermal is about 0.3%, while solar, wind and biomass account for less than 1%.

Fossil fuels have many advantages, but they also have severe disadvantages in terms of pollution and other environmental effects. The CO2 that is inevitably generated by the burning of all fossil fuels is now widely considered likely to contribute to global warming, which could have enormous, and locally disastrous, consequences. And there is no viable large scale technology available for retaining and neutralizing these CO2 emissions.

There is indeed much talk about the need to reduce CO2 emissions. But the Climate Convention that was adopted at the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 did not say how reductions in CO2 emissions were to be achieved. The worrisome reality is that reductions are not taking place: CO2 emissions continue to increase practically everywhere - also in the industrialized countries. Had it not been for the contraction in most of the formerly centrally planned economies, matters would be even worse. As these countries' economies grow again their CO2 emissions will rise. Indeed, an OECD report on the world energy outlook predicts that energy derived CO2 emissions will increase globally by almost 50% by the year 2010. And most industrialized countries will not meet the target they have set themselves for limiting their year 2000 emissions to 1990 levels to stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

What can be done? One proposed remedy to constrain global energy use is the more efficient use of energy: the less fossil fuels are consumed, the less CO2 emissions will be. Gains in energy efficiency are achieved as technologies are developed. However, efficiency gains will be more than offset by the growing demand for energy. Let us not forget that the energy crisis for the vast majority of the world's population is one of energy deficit. Conservation measures - Negawatts - are essential, but they provide no answer for those who have no electricity.

A greater use of renewable sources of energy - wind and solar power and biomass - is urged by environmentalists. Renewable energy sources may provide more substantial amounts of energy in the future than now. Their present contribution - excluding hydropower, but including geothermal and biomass - meets only about 2% of world commercial energy demand. The reason for this limited role is hardly a lack of resources for R&D or some sinister conspiracies of energy lobbies. The reason, I submit, has to do with the low energy density of these sources. Harvesting wind, sunshine and biomass is expensive. Although they can and should find welcome 'niche' uses, they are not likely to meet base-load needs. It has been calculated that to achieve the electrical generating capacity of a power plant of 1000 MW(e) one would need an area of 50 to 100 km2 of solar cells or windmills, or an area of 4000 to 6000 km2 of growing biomass. To make matters more difficult, both sunshine and wind are intermittent.

Those who claim that a switch to the renewable sources should be a major part of the response to the CO2 problem should note that States which have abandoned nuclear power have not replaced it by renewable sources. Austria decided in 1978 not to operate a newly built nuclear power plant which would have used some 30 tonnes of uranium per year, but produced no 'greenhouse' gases. Instead, two coal fired power plants were built and these now burn five train-loads of coal per day - the emission of CO2 being substantial. We can be certain that if the Czech Republic were not completing Temelin and the Slovak Republic were not completing Mohovce, the substitutes would not be solar or wind power but fossil fuels.

We should further note with relief that nuclear power is allowed to play a growing role in satisfying the rising demand for energy in the fast expanding economies of East Asia: in Japan, the Republic of Korea and China.

Many analysts, commentators and politicians are concerned about the stagnation of nuclear power in the Western industrialized countries and are aware of the need to revitalize its development. It is increasingly realized that, although nuclear power will not be the only means of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, it is indispensable as a part of the response. Let me quote the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency of the OECD who last summer, at the second meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, noted - I quote - that "nuclear power accounted for the greater part of the lowering of carbon intensity of the energy economies of the OECD countries over the last 25 years".

Indeed, we have calculated that if all the nuclear power plants producing electricity in the world today (some 435) were to be replaced by coal plants of equivalent capacity, some 2600 million tonnes would be added annually to the CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. This would represent an extra 9% to all CO2 emissions coming from the burning of fossil fuels.

If we are to take the threat of global warming seriously - as we are asked to do - then, in my view, the countries which have reached an adequate technological capability should consider the nuclear power option as an attractive 'no regret' alternative to fossil fuels. The WEC 1995 study which I cited earlier, and which considered six different energy scenarios in face of the risk of global warming, notes specifically that "nuclear power emerges as a robust option in all scenarios".

Four objections are often advanced against the nuclear option: the perceived association of nuclear power technology with the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the perceived risks of accidents; the long lived radioactive waste; and the high cost of the option. There are good and explicit answers to these objections and we can all help to make them better known.

The economics of nuclear power remains of vital importance. It depends upon the constructors, builders, operators and regulators. There has to be increased cost consciousness in all these groups - without any sacrifice on the safety side. For developing countries, the up-front need for investment capital will remain a difficulty, in addition to the need for a certain level of industrial and technological infrastructure and well trained engineers.

A second objection is that nuclear power might lead to a further spread of nuclear weapons and to illicit trafficking in nuclear materials. Let me point out, however, that all nuclear weapon States developed their weapons before they built nuclear power reactors. The risk of nuclear weapon proliferation will persist regardless of what number of nuclear plants are built for electricity generation. Further, extensive efforts are being made to minimize the risk of proliferation and of trafficking. For its part, the IAEA is actively engaged in strengthening the verification that must be linked to all peaceful uses of nuclear energy to give confidence that misuse would be deterred or discovered. The Agency's Board of Governors at its meeting this week is expected to approve a Protocol on strengthened safeguards, including new types of inspections and controls, greater access and new verification methods to enhance the ability to detect any possibly undeclared nuclear material or activities. I hope that, as operators, you will help us to smoothly implement these more effective safeguards and respond to the concerns.

Fortunately, there is an important movement away from nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which 185 States are now party, was extended indefinitely in 1995. A complete test ban treaty has recently been adopted by the United Nations and nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific and elsewhere have now ceased. If nuclear disarmament continues and detente could be developed in the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent and on the Korean peninsula, the nuclear weapons era might be ending. The association `nuclear power-nuclear weapons' is getting weaker and weaker.

A third objection voiced against reliance on nuclear power relates to the long lived radioactive waste. However, there is hardly any industrial waste problem that is tackled with more responsibility than that of civilian nuclear waste. If the waste resulting from the burning of fossil fuels could be handled as well as that from nuclear fission, and if the handling of herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers were as cautious as the handling of nuclear waste, then the worst of the world's environmental problems would be eliminated. The volume of waste of nuclear power is extremely limited. It can therefore be responsibly isolated in its entirety from the biosphere. Let me be specific.

A nuclear plant of 1000 MW(e) capacity emits virtually no CO2, but produces some 35 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel annually. If the spent fuel is reprocessed, the volume of high level radioactive waste will be about 3 cubic metres annually, which can be processed and disposed of in a safe manner by deep geological disposal in durable solid forms protected by multiple barriers. The technologies of both waste disposal and decommissioning of nuclear power plants are known, so that it is possible to make good estimates of what the costs will be: for light water reactor plants, of the order of 5-10% of the initial construction cost. The entire nuclear chain supporting this 1000 MW(e) plant - from mining through operation - will generate, in addition, some 200 m3 of intermediate level waste and some 500 m3 of low level waste per year.

A 1000 MW(e) coal fired plant with optimal cleaning equipment will each year emit about 5000 tonnes of SO2; about 4000 tonnes of NOx; 400 tonnes of heavy metals, including such poisonous elements as cadmium, lead, arsenic and mercury; and 6.5 million tonnes of CO2. In addition, there will be 500 000 tonnes of solid wastes from the SO2 and NOx removal devices which must be recycled or stored in waste ponds.

Let me give another illustration from the year 1994: in the United Kingdom, where some 49% of electricity was generated by coal, the emission of CO2 per kWh generated was about 0.63 kg. In France, where about 75% of electricity was generated by nuclear power, the emission of CO2 per kWh was about one tenth as much: 0.064 kg. For comparison let me mention that in the Czech Republic the emission of CO2 per kWh was 0.769 kg; in some other countries where a lot of coal was used for electricity generation the CO2 emissions per kWh were also high: in Poland 0.967 kg; in Denmark 0.917 kg. But in Sweden, where electricity was generated almost exclusively by nuclear and hydro power, it was 0.058 kg. These facts deserve to be widely known and appreciated. The problem of nuclear waste is not one of technology but psychology. It also deserves to be known that there is full international agreement on the principles for safe disposal of nuclear waste. Within the IAEA a Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management is now nearing completion. It will be submitted to the IAEA's Board of Governors for approval very soon and is expected to be ready for signature at our General Conference in October. Through this Convention, States will commit themselves to respect a common set of principles. They will also oblige themselves to report to meetings of the contracting parties on their practices and will have to accept peer review of their waste installations. Which other industry is doing anything similar?

Let me turn, lastly, to the safety of nuclear power. The frightening image of a serious nuclear accident is probably at the heart of many people's sceptical attitude to nuclear power. Far be it from me to belittle the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Yet even that disaster must be correctly assessed and seen in its proper perspective. I submit to you that the IAEA has done more than any other international organization to accurately and scientifically investigate the causes and consequences of the Chernobyl accident and to present the results openly for examination and discussion. Energy production with absolute safety - the exclusion of any risk - may not be attainable. Sceptics of nuclear power should be reminded, however, that the worst accidents - in terms of casualties - in the energy sector are the failures of hydropower dams. To give you just one example: the rupture in 1979 of a dam in Macchu in India caused the death of 2500 people.

However, the safety of nuclear power is our mission. In this regard let me cite the Declaration of the Moscow Nuclear Safety and Security Summit in April 1996 which stated that: "Nuclear safety has to prevail over all other considerations. We reaffirm our commitment to the highest internationally recognized safety level for the siting, design, construction, operation and regulation of nuclear power installations." Today, we can say that the issue of nuclear safety has been made truly international and that the strengthening of nuclear and radiation safety is an international collaborative effort. The establishment and work of WANO is an essential part of this effort. Here is a mutual openness unmatched in other industries. I salute your work.

The IAEA has contributed to the collaborative efforts through three principal means:

The Convention on Nuclear Safety, which entered into force last year, is the latest addition to the binding international agreements. A key provision - as in the convention on nuclear waste that will soon be submitted to a conference for adoption - is that each country party to the Convention adheres to certain principles, such as the establishing of an independent regulatory body. Countries further undertake to prepare national reports on the implementation of their obligations and such reports will be submitted for discussion at meetings held at least once every three years. There will thus be international scrutiny. This, it is hoped, will encourage responsible policies and expose any weaknesses to constructive criticism.

National governments have sole responsibility for the regulation and safe operation of nuclear power plants. However, there has long been an interest in the formulation of harmonized safety approaches - not only to promote consistency, but also to facilitate non-domestic commercial involvement - for nuclear power and for industrial and medical applications of radiation and radioactive materials. Since its inception, the IAEA has been engaged in the development of internationally recognized non-binding safety standards, which have been a principal means of achieving harmonization. This still remains so. For the authorities in many States such standards, worked out on the basis of collective and accumulated experience of a wider community of States, are extremely useful as guidance.

The IAEA's provision of peer review and advisory services by experts have long drawn on international expertise in matters of nuclear safety in order to provide an additional technical basis for decisions to improve plant safety and to assist national decision makers. WANO has several programmes that are complementary to those of the IAEA. A major purpose of the Agency's review and advisory services is to assist national authorities on the proper application of safety standards. Although the IAEA can issue no injunctions to Member States, on five occasions since 1990 the IAEA has written to governments after safety reviews, calling their attention to the need for major safety improvements before continuing or resuming operation of plants. For some time now, work has been done on guidelines for assessments by the plants themselves of operational safety performance and for the improvement of operational practices. Emphasis will now shift to missions ensuring the quality of such national safety reviews.

Advisory services and expert reviews have been used extensively as part of the IAEA's assistance to countries of eastern Europe and the former USSR. In co-operation with other international organizations, including the European Union and WANO, the Agency has taken steps to review the adequacy of plant design and operational practices, and review operational incidents. It has achieved an international consensus on a list of safety issues for each type of plant in this region and ranked them according to their safety significance; it has reviewed plant specific safety improvement programmes; and it has monitored the status of improvement programmes. Although many shortcomings identified have been addressed, some important safety concerns remain - reactor pressure vessel integrity being the most significant. I should add that in each case the IAEA has worked with international groups of experts, including the Russian designers and the national operators of the plants.

The IAEA activities which I have described supplement bilateral and multilateral efforts to improve the safety of these reactors, e.g. efforts by France, Germany, the USA, Sweden, Finland and the European Union. I am happy to note that WANO provides significant support to operators in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union which are upgrading plants to enhance safety. Although WANO does not advise on design issues, the present co-operation and exchange of information between nuclear scientists and engineers means that less safe or reliable design or practices are much less likely to pass without remark, and the need for upgrades to existing plants will be much more readily apparent and easy to assess. I welcome this activity.

The IAEA is now also developing, with WANO participation, a structured and hierarchical list of safety indicators as quantitative measures of attributes for all aspects of plant operation. Qualitative features of risk indicators based on probabilistic safety analysis and safety culture are also considered. The indicators will be used in programmes to monitor safety performance. Trends in these indicators over time in particular plants should help plant operators to detect and investigate the reason for changes in the plant. The indicators may need to be customized to plant specific indicators, and cannot necessarily be compared between plants. The WANO performance indicators have been adopted as specific indicators wherever possible, and for these WANO definitions and calculations will be used as far as possible.

Mr. Chairman: A challenge for nuclear power plant operators and for WANO in my view lies in helping to relaunch the nuclear option by:

WANO and the IAEA are different and separate organizations, but we complement each other, and I am happy to note that we co-operate very well and seek to co-ordinate our efforts.

I have given my personal views on the case for nuclear power as part of a global energy mix that may help to provide a sustainable energy supply in the future. Although there is no international consensus on nuclear power, a view that is probably representative of the position for many of the world's governments in technologically advanced countries was expressed by the leaders of the G-7 and Russia at the Moscow Nuclear Safety and Security Summit on 20 April 1996: "We are ready to co-operate among ourselves so that the use of nuclear energy is conducted all over the world consistently with fundamental principles of nuclear safety. Further, we are committed to measures which will enable nuclear power, already a significant contributor to electricity supply in those countries choosing to exploit it, to continue in the next century to play an important role in meeting future energy demands, consistent with the goal of sustainable development agreed at the Rio Conference." Recently (27 January 1997) the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Ryutaro Hashimoto, stated before the Diet his government's view of nuclear power. It is also worth citing: "The peaceful use of nuclear power is essential to cope with global warming and the nation's resource weak energy position. The government will promote the peaceful use of nuclear power, based on a thorough assurance of safety and the understanding of the people, obtained through active efforts to make nuclear related information available to the public." I fully endorse these remarks and I am convinced that WANO's good work will be needed for a very long time to come.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

Stay in touch