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Director General's Statement at IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century

Abu Dabi, United Arab Emirates

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano addresses the opening session of the IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

(As prepared for delivery)

Mr President,

I am very pleased to welcome you all to this IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century.

I thank the Government of the United Arab Emirates for hosting this timely event. And I express my appreciation to our friends and partners at the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD for their cooperation in organising it.

This is the fourth such event at ministerial level, following the successful conferences held in Paris in 2005, Beijing in 2009 and St Petersburg in 2013.

I am very pleased that this conference is taking place for the first time in what we at the IAEA call a “newcomer” country. The IAEA has worked very closely with the United Arab Emirates as it builds four nuclear power reactors at the Barakah site.

I have had the privilege of visiting the site a number of times and I commend our hosts, and their contractors, for the speed and efficiency of construction.

Mr President,

In St Petersburg four years ago, I stated my belief that nuclear power would make a significant and growing contribution to sustainable development in the coming decades.

I still believe that today. Why? Because it is difficult to see how the world will meet the challenge of securing sufficient energy, and mitigating the impact of climate change, without making more use of nuclear power.

The challenge is immense. Today, 70% of the world’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2050, if climate change goals are to be met, around 80% of electricity will need to be low-carbon.

All countries – both developed and developing – need to secure sufficient energy to drive economic growth and counter climate change.

Nuclear power is one of the lowest-carbon technologies for generating electricity. Today, nuclear power produces 11 percent of the world’s electricity. But when it comes to low-carbon electricity, nuclear generates almost one third of the global total. Hydro power, by comparison, generates nearly half of the world’s low-carbon electricity. But its potential for growth is limited.

Nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants during their operation. Emissions over their entire life cycle are very low.

The use of nuclear power reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about two gigatonnes per year. That is the equivalent of taking more than 400 million cars off the road – every year.

Mr President,

In order to meet the world’s growing energy needs in future, we will need to make optimal use of all the sources of energy available.

It is clear that renewables such as wind and solar power will play an increasingly important role. However, more use of nuclear power will be needed to provide the steady supply of baseload electricity to power modern economies if countries are to meet the goals for greenhouse gas emissions which they set for themselves in the Paris Agreement.

It will be important to keep current nuclear power plants running at full power for as long as possible. The IAEA provides a platform for operators to share their experiences with plant life management, outage management and fuel optimization.

Many operators and regulators believe that the lifetimes of existing plants can be safely extended beyond their design basis to 40, 60 or even 80 years. The IAEA helps countries to share experience in this area, too. We also offer valuable peer review services to build international confidence that long-term operation is safe.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are now 448 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries. Another 57 reactors are under construction, mostly in Asia. Around 30 countries are interested in introducing nuclear power.

The United Arab Emirates is expected to connect its first reactor to the grid in 2018, with the other three units to follow by 2020. Belarus expects to commission its first two reactors in 2019 and 2020.

Global installed nuclear capacity is now the highest that it has ever been at 392 gigawatts electrical. Twenty new reactors were connected to the grid in the last two years, the highest number since the 1980s.

However, around 14 power reactors have been shut down since 2015, and global nuclear electricity production remains below 2010 levels. Some countries have taken the decision to phase out nuclear power altogether.

The latest IAEA projections show that nuclear power’s global potential up to 2050 remains high, but its expansion is expected to slow in the coming years.

Clearly, the pace of construction of new nuclear power plants will need to be stepped up if the world’s future energy needs, as well as climate change goals, are to be met. It is difficult to see other low-carbon energy sources growing sufficiently to take up the slack if nuclear power use fails to grow.

Mr President,

I am hopeful that continuous, evolutionary improvement in reactor designs in the coming years will improve the economic attractiveness and cost effectiveness of nuclear power, and help to alleviate public concerns about issues such as safety and waste disposal.  

In the last four years, advanced water cooled reactors with innovative safety features, from several technology providers, have been commissioned, or have reached the final stages of construction. This new generation of reactors could play a key role in the accelerated replacement and expansion of the global nuclear fleet.

Several small modular reactors are also ready for near-term deployment. These could make nuclear power feasible for the first time on smaller grids and in remote settings, as well as for non-electrical applications.

We are seeing two other interesting developments. First, the centre of expansion in nuclear power has shifted from Europe and North America to Asia. Second, developing countries are embarking on nuclear power.

This should not really come as a surprise. Populous countries such as China and India need huge amounts of electricity and also want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries, especially in Africa, desperately need electricity if they are to achieve sustainable development.

The IAEA accompanies both experienced users and newcomers at every stage of their nuclear journey.

We establish global nuclear safety standards and security guidance. We provide detailed practical assistance in many areas, from energy planning to site selection, legal and regulatory matters and technical training, all the way through to plant decommissioning.

We also work to ensure that the expansion of nuclear power does not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons by implementing safeguards in 181 countries.

Mr President,

In many countries, public acceptance remains the main hurdle to be overcome in the use of nuclear power. Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power was deeply shaken by the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011.

The post-Fukushima IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety made a valuable contribution to improving safety globally. Countries with nuclear power plants reassessed all aspects of safety and made improvements, where necessary. IAEA safety standards were revised. The need to maintain a robust safety culture is now universally recognised.

It is essential that the most robust levels of nuclear safety, consistent with IAEA safety standards, are in place at every nuclear power plant in the world.

Every country that uses nuclear technology has a responsibility to create a robust framework for safety and security. Safety is a national responsibility but effective international cooperation is also essential. The IAEA has a key role to play in enabling countries to share experiences and best practices.

It is also vitally important that nuclear and other radioactive material is properly secured so that it does not fall into the hands of terrorists and other criminals. This is also a national responsibility, but the IAEA provides the global platform for cooperation in nuclear security, offering extensive practical support.

Mr President,

A key reason for public concern about nuclear power is the problem of nuclear waste.

Despite some perceptions to the contrary, the nuclear industry has been managing waste disposal successfully for more than half a century. Dozens of facilities for low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste are in operation throughout the world.

As far as the long-term management of high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel is concerned, good progress has been made in recent years, especially in Finland, Sweden and France. I have had the privilege of visiting the relevant sites in all three countries.

The first deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel is likely to become operational in Finland early in the next decade. 

Another obstacle to future development that is often cited is the high cost of building a nuclear power plant.

Nuclear power plants are indeed expensive to build, but once they are up and running, they are relatively inexpensive to operate throughout a life cycle of many decades.

Mr President,

The entry into force of the Paris Agreement last year was an important milestone in global efforts to combat climate change.

Nuclear power undoubtedly has an important contribution to make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the damage that climate change has already caused to the environment – and the threat it can pose to the livelihoods of some communities – also need to be addressed. 

Non-power applications of nuclear science and technology already make an important contribution in this field.

With specialist laboratories in Monaco and near Vienna, the IAEA helps countries to obtain reliable data and devise accurate models to help predict future conditions. We have launched international studies to help understanding of the effects of climate change on polar and mountainous regions.

We assist countries in developing new varieties of food crops such as rice and barley that are resistant to drought and other conditions that may be exacerbated by climate change. And we help countries and regions to use nuclear techniques to manage limited water resources.

Mr President,

Let me conclude by thanking all of you once again for your participation in this conference. I am especially pleased to see so many high-level participants.

I believe this reflects the growing awareness among our 168 Member States that nuclear science and technology have a great deal to offer in addressing some of the key challenges of the 21st century.

The IAEA remains committed to helping the world make optimal use of nuclear technology to generate low-carbon energy for development, and to counter the effects of climate change.

Thank you.

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