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

You are here

The Global Need for Nuclear Power

Vienna, Austria

The nuclear power option is attracting increasing attention in East and South East Asia. It is not difficult to understand why. The fastest developing economies in the world require rapid growth in their energy resources. In the Republic of Korea, where a phenomenal economic development has taken place, electricity use per person was at 100 kWh per year in 1964. Today it is 4000.

The Republic of Korea is fast developing its nuclear programme. Today it has 11 reactors operating. In 10 years time there may be over 25. Japan, which has hardly any indigenous energy resources and whose post war development was an even greater economic miracle than that of Germany, has today more than 50 nuclear power reactors providing some 33% of Japan's electricity. China, a late starter in the nuclear power field, currently has only three reactors operating, but the prospects are for a very fast expanding programme.

The use of fossil sources of energy is growing even faster than nuclear, whose usefulness at present is mainly in responding to the demand for electricity. Indeed, overall oil, gas and coal - fossil fuels - provide most of the commercial energy that the world uses - or about 90%. Of this 36% is oil, 31% is coal and 22% is gas. Nuclear power and hydro power provide about 11% - nuclear a little less than hydro. Geothermal gives us about 0.5% and commercial renewables, like solar, wind and biomass, about 0.1%.

It is precisely this crushing domination of fossil fuels that has led in the last thirty years to the active consideration - and increased use - of nuclear power. It used to be said that the cheapest energy is the best energy and the price tag still certainly remains of crucial importance. However, some other factors cannot be ignored.

One of the early worries about the fossil fuels concerned the resource base. The Club of Rome and other institutions warned that oil and gas would soon be depleted. The resource worry is voiced with less intensity as more oil and gas and coal finds are made and become exploitable with new techniques. Nevertheless there is a broad understanding and agreement that at current levels of use exploitable oil and gas will run out within 50 years, while coal may last more than 200 years. Considering that the lead times are very long in the field of energy, we cannot allow ourselves to ignore the resource issue. We must know how we shall satisfy our future need for energy.

Industrialized countries also became concerned about the risks of being dependent on oil and gas from politically volatile areas like the Middle East. The oil blockade was a powerful alarm clock that led energy poor countries like France and Japan to diversify their energy base and turn to energy saving and to nuclear power in order to become less vulnerable. Today, however, this lesson seems to carry little weight in many places. For instance, despite the continued lack of stability in the Middle East, the United States dependence on oil from this region is growing.

While the dramatic price increases following the oil blockade and OPEC control had a strong impact on energy policies, the price of oil and gas has dropped drastically since then and the shock has worn off. With economies happily sailing on a sea of cheap oil or floating on a cushion of cheap gas, thoughts about future energy supply are not allowed to seriously disturb the complacency of the moment. And yet, more and more analysts, commentators and politicians are becoming concerned about the stagnation of nuclear power in the Western industrialized countries and aware of the need to bring nuclear power development back into gear. Today the actual and potential environmental consequences of the current level of use of fossil fuels contribute strongly to this awareness. The situation is somewhat paradoxical. One reason why a sizeable segment of public opinion became sceptical about nuclear power was undoubtedly the concern which it felt generally about industrial waste and pollution - in which it included nuclear waste. While this scepticism and concern, in the minds of many, are still felt about nuclear power and its waste, it is realized today by many others that nuclear power, which releases hardly any greenhouse gases, may help alleviate one of our greatest environmental threats, namely global warming.

Fossil Fuels and the Environment

Let me focus for a moment on the environmental dangers of continued use of fossil fuels at current or increased levels. In the 1970s and early 1980s the major concern was that the release of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides led to acid rains, damaging forests and lakes. This concern remains, but several techniques now exist to eliminate or drastically reduce the emission of these noxious gases - though at considerable cost. However, no technique is available to remove or neutralize the CO2 which is formed at the burning of all fossil fuels and which, together with some other gases like methane leaked during the extraction and piping of natural gas, are believed to lead to an increase in the temperature of the world's atmosphere - global warming.

At a conference here in Manila last February, Asian and Pacific leaders focused on the question of climate change. It was reported that the emissions of CO2 - mainly from the burning of fossil fuels - had increased from some 16 billion tons in 1972 to some 23 billion tons/year currently. If present trends continued these CO2 emissions, which trap heat in our atmosphere, would accelerate a warming of the global climate with vast consequences, including rising sea levels - through melting ice - and severe effects on coastlines and island States. President Ramos was reported to have said that it would be ironical if an agreement on the freeze of CO2 emissions were to freeze the Third World countries in a state of under-development. However, the conference seems to have urged only the industrialized countries - not the Third World countries - to reduce by the year 2005 their 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. After all, these are the countries that have been responsible for the excessive emissions that raise the current problem. How the reductions were to be achieved was not explained. Nor did the Climate Convention, which was adopted at the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, say how such reductions were to be achieved. The worrisome reality is that in fact reductions are not taking place, but the CO2 emissions continue to increase practically everywhere - including in the industrialized countries. Indeed, an OECD report on the world energy outlook predicts that energy-derived CO2 emissions will increase by almost 50% by the year 2010.

There does not seem to be any doubt that a greater use of nuclear power could significantly alleviate the dilemma of an increasing need for energy and an increasing need to reduce CO2 emissions. In a speech before the Second Session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Mr. Priddle, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency of the OECD, noted 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, if the some 435 nuclear reactors which exist in the world today were to be replaced by coal plants of equivalent capacity, some 2600 million tons of CO2 would be added to the world's atmosphere annually - i.e. 9% of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Before focusing further on the nuclear energy option to help restrain CO2 emissions, I should discuss some other approaches.

Are there Alternatives to Nuclear Power?

One approach - to which everybody agrees - is to bring about a more efficient use of energy. It is rightly said that the least polluting energy is the energy you don't use. Or, the less fossil fuels are used, the less CO2 emissions. Efficiency gains are achieved as technologies develop. Today's cars run twice as far on a litre of gasoline as the cars did 10 years ago. However, this gain is likely to be neutralized by a doubling in the number of cars. Similarly, today's refrigerators and lamp bulbs use less electricity than yesterday's. However, there are more refrigerators and lamps ... This, of course, is no reason to ignore possible economic efficiency gains. But for dedicated efforts in this area the situation would be even worse.

Another, perfectly realistic approach, consists in a switch from coal to oil and gas, as the burning of oil and gas produce less CO2 per energy unit than from the burning of coal. In the Western industrialized countries an evolution of this kind may be taking place. Coal is not the energy of choice today. The use of gas is favoured, partly because at current prices it is economic, and partly for environmental reasons. Gas use is expected to increase by 55% in absolute terms from 1992 to 2010. We have to face the reality, however, that globally there is also a strong increase in the use of coal. Again between 1992 and 2010 the annual coal production is expected to increase dramatically:

If one may assume that all this coal will be used, one must conclude that the combustion will lead to more CO2 emissions.

One question which naturally is asked is whether it would be feasible to sequester - separate and neutralize - the CO2 that is formed when fossil fuels are burnt. While theoretical suggestions have been made about such separation and about the piping of the CO2 and the injection of it at 3000 metres depth in the ocean, no realistic schemes of this kind exist.

A greater use of renewable sources of energy - wind and solar power and biomass - is invariably urged from the environmentalist quarters. Considerable research and development resources are devoted to these energy sources and it is to be hoped that they will one day provide substantial amounts of energy in the future. However, as I noted earlier, currently their contribution - hydro power and geothermal not counted - is only about 0.1% of world energy.

It is perhaps tempting to believe that the sunshine which is free and everywhere and the wind that blows all over the world and the biomass that grows freely, could become limitless, CO2-free sources of energy. Regrettably, these sources have several inherent and severe handicaps which affect their economy and usefulness. Solar rays and wind are intermittent - it does not shine or blow all the time - and so long as we have not found effective ways of storing electricity these sources cannot provide the electricity that we need around the clock - the baseload electricity.

Another inherent handicap in renewable sources is that they are dispersed. If you want significant amounts of energy (electricity) from solar or wind or biomass, you must "harvest" them over large areas and this is expensive. It has been calculated that, to achieve the electricity generating capacity of one of today's commonly sized power plants of 1000 MW(e), you would need:

It is not difficult to understand that it will be hard to make such energy sources economically competitive. What I have said should not be taken as expressing a negative attitude to non-conventional renewable sources of energy. I support continued research, development and trial use of these sources. Solar energy is presently of use for the heating of household water and for the generation of electricity where only small amounts of electricity are needed, as in watches or instruments, and where there exist real cost-benefits as in isolated places to which power lines would be very costly. Wind and biomass also have their applications. However, we should have no illusions that in the short or medium term these sources will bring us the huge quantities of energy that will be demanded. Despite the welcome gradual progress that has been made in the effectiveness of renewable sources, these are not expected - by neutral analysts such as the World Energy Council - to reach but very modest shares of the world energy use in the foreseeable future.

Mankind has gone from the use of wood to coal, oil, gas and uranium because the higher energy concentration has offered economy and convenience. Sailing ships were replaced by steamers using coal-fired engines and these were replaced by oil-fired diesel engines. Were it not for the resistance and fear of nuclear energy, nuclear power reactors might have been used not only in aircraft carriers, ice-breakers and submarines, but also to replace the diesel engines in large cargo ships. Some figures may help to further illustrate the meaning of energy density:

Understandably the differences in energy density have an impact on the measures needed for extraction, storage and transportation of the fuel. In a referendum Austria decided not to operate a nuclear power plant which it had built and which would have used some 30 tons of uranium/year. The two coal-fired power plants which were built as a substitute now burn five train loads of coal per day - or about 1.5-2 million tons of coal per year ... Another example illustrating how high density energy can be used is a small nuclear power plant of four units of 12 MW(e) that the Russians have built to provide electricity to an isolated mining community in an inaccessible Arctic area. The uranium fuel can be flown in! And the resulting spent fuel can be flown out!

Energy Choices

It is evident that before making a choice among the various energy options comparisons should be made from several viewpoints. Economy may still be the most important aspect, but their impact upon life, health and environment is an increasingly important factor. As I have noted, the degree of energy independence that an option may give can also be of relevance. The same is true of the level of technical or scientific infrastructure that an energy option may require.

When I suggest that "we" should compare the economic, ecological and other aspects of different energy options from fuel extraction to waste disposal, I speak as if there existed some global planning commission. In reality the decisions are taken by individual governments, sometimes perhaps even by private utilities. While the decentralization of decision-making has great advantages, it also poses problems. In an individual State the government can legislate to bring individual action in line with the national good, but how can a world community of sovereign States bring the action of individual States in line with global needs?

The problem is by no means unprecedented. Take fisheries: it may be advantageous for a State to allow its fishermen to catch as much fish as they can in international waters. But if all States reason this way, the stock may disappear. So some agreement regulating catch needs to be worked out between the States to make fishing a sustainable activity. Or take the problem of the thinning ozone layer: it may be advantageous for a country to allow the free use of CFCs (chlorofluorcarbons), but if all States do that, the ozone layer, which protects us from too much ultraviolet rays, may disappear, leading to sharp increases everywhere in skin cancer. We evidently need agreement between States to ensure that CFC emissions be minimal.

The risk of global warming resulting from the excessive emissions of greenhouse gases by individual nations raises a similar problem and a similar need for international agreement. However, the uncertainties and dimensions of this problem are far greater and the difficulties are compounded by the modest outlook for renewable sources of energy and the controversy surrounding nuclear power. Clearly a first step for reaching some internationally agreed policy is to create a realistic perception of facts and understanding of the problems we face.

Various scenarios which have been worked out show that significantly less CO2 emissions would result from a global energy mix in which nuclear power formed a greater part than is currently the case. At this nuclear conference I shall focus on nuclear power, its merits and problems. A few illustrations may be clarifying.

A nuclear plant of 1000 MW(e) capacity emits no CO2, but produces some 35 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel. If the spent fuel is reprocessed, the volume of highly radioactive waste will be about 3 m3. 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.

Another illustration: in the UK, where some 70% of electricity is generated by coal, the emission of CO2 per kWh is 0.78 kg. In France, where more than 70% of electricity is generated by nuclear power, the emission of CO2 per kWh is about one tenth of the UK value, or 0.086 kg.

If the almost total absence of CO2 emissions makes nuclear power an attractive option to respond to the risk of global warming, other aspects of nuclear power must also be discussed. Let me first touch on the economy.

Nuclear power used to have a strong competitive economic advantage over fossil-fuelled electricity. This advantage has largely disappeared through increased costs resulting from many new demands on the safety side. However, while fossil-based electricity may be increasingly forced to carry the cost of expensive anti-pollution measures, nuclear power can probably still envisage construction improvements which will make the plants cheaper in the future. At present the OECD calculates that with variations due to specific locations and different discount assumptions, the cost of nuclear generated electricity and coal-based electricity is roughly on par. However, this conclusion does not deal with one relevant factor. A large part of the cost of nuclear power is upfront - in the construction of the plant. The uranium fuel for the plant is relatively cheap. For the coal plant the situation is the opposite: the cost of the construction is not so great, but the cost of the fuel over the life span of the plant is considerable. For developing countries short of investment capital, this is clearly a negative factor in the nuclear option. Further, for many developing countries the need for a certain level of industrial and technological infrastructure and for well trained cadres of engineers may also make the choice of the nuclear option inadvisable.

There are three other factors that, in the view of many, speak against the nuclear option: the issues of waste, safety and proliferation.

I touched already on the issue of nuclear waste. At this point I need only add that it is an erroneous belief that there are no safe and satisfactory ways of isolating wastes which remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years - that the nuclear industry is like an aeroplane taking off without knowing where to land. There is, indeed, a global consensus in the nuclear industry on appropriate methods and a convention on the subject of management of spent fuel and waste, laying down the basic rules and obliging the parties to mutually accept peer review of their waste installations, is expected to be signed under IAEA auspices next year. The problem we face on nuclear waste is not technological but rather one of explaining to the public that the solutions are adequate.

Nuclear Safety

Fear of nuclear accidents resulting in emissions of radioactivity to the environment is probably at the heart of many peoples' sceptical attitude to nuclear power. The Chernobyl accident ten years ago stands as the frightening image. It would be far for me to belittle that tragic accident, yet it must be seen in a larger perspective and nuclear safety must be compared with safety in alternative ways of generating electricity. It should first be remembered that most new technologies encounter some accidents - from which lessons are learnt. Both the Three Mile Island accident - from which no radioactivity escaped to the environment - and the Chernobyl disaster have led to the introduction of new safety features in nuclear reactors and in the operating procedures. Also of importance is the fact that gradually an international nuclear safety culture is developing. The IAEA is very active in bringing it about - through rules and services. Fortunately we can see, in the lower number of unplanned reactor stoppages, in the lower radiation dosages affecting the personnel and in the higher availability of the plants that this safety culture is yielding results. Improved reactor constructions will also help to strengthen safety in new plants that are built.

Nevertheless, we know that as in any other technology there will be some incidents and we hope that there will be no accidents. The risks are not zero. The IAEA has introduced an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) which grades accidents - just as we grade earthquakes - from 1 to 7. We hope this scale will help the public realize that most incidents are of very minor significance and result in no threat to public health.

When considering the risk of nuclear generation of electricity one must be aware that alternative ways of generating the desired electricity would also carry some risk. Actually the largest accidents - in terms of casualties - in the energy field are connected with the bursting of hydro dams. One example was the failure in 1979 of a dam in Macchu in India, where 2500 people perished. There are also, as we know, severe accidents connected with the piping and storing of gas, the mining of coal and the transportation of oil. A gas pipeline explosions in Guadalajara in Mexico killed 200 people in 1992. In China, a recent coal mine explosion last week is reported to have killed many miners.

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

Lastly, let me discuss the concern that an expansion of nuclear power might lead to a further spread of nuclear weapons and to illicit trafficking in nuclear materials. These concerns must be taken seriously. However, with the end of the Cold War and the accelerated dismantling of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia, there is a broad - but not universal - movement away from nuclear weapons. Latin America and Africa are now nuclear-weapon-free continents and nuclear-weapon-free zones have been established in the South Pacific and - last year - in South East Asia. The Non-Proliferation Treaty has been extended for an indefinite period of time and a complete test ban treaty has recently been adopted by the United Nations. Tests in the Pacific and elsewhere have ceased.

If nuclear disarmament continues and detente could be developed in the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent and on the Korean peninsula, the world might be exiting from the nuclear weapons era. This would be an enormous blessing in itself. It would hopefully also make it easier to obtain public acceptance of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. For its part the IAEA is very actively engaged in strengthening the verification that must be linked to all peaceful uses of nuclear energy to give confidence that any misuse would be discovered. We don't want another Iraq.

In concluding let me make two further points. First, it is not my task or the task of the IAEA to "sell" nuclear power to anybody. All States take their own decisions, on their own responsibility. My belief is, however, that a global nuclear revival will become indispensible, that the industrialized countries in the West, which once spearheaded nuclear power, will in due course follow the examples of Asia and that gradually more, technically advanced developing countries will also turn to the nuclear option - as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, India and Pakistan have done, and as the Republic of Korea, China and Taiwan (China) are now doing on a large scale.

The second - and last - point I want to make relates to regional co-operation. In May of this year President Ramos called on East Asian countries to discuss the possible creation of an "Asiatom". And in July, Foreign Minister Siazon amplified these ideas at the Third ASEAN Regional Forum in Jakarta. In my view, it is wise to suggest the early consideration of such ideas. Indeed, good examples already exist. The IAEA-supported Regional Co-operation Agreement for Asia and the Pacific brings together national nuclear institutions in a range of nuclear related activities contributing to development. Also the South East Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone provides for interaction on issues such as safety and waste disposal.

There is little doubt that there could be advantages in further measures on a regional basis, for example to train operators, scientists and regulators. Also, looking to the future, there could be a case, for reasons of economy, transparency and mutual confidence to consider the operation of fuel cycle installations, like enrichment or reprocessing plants and waste disposal sites under regional arrangements.

Although trafficking in nuclear material has not been common in Asia, regional co-operation to prevent it could well be advantageous. Safeguards verification under the Non-Proliferation Treaty will most likely remain international. In fact, all existing regional nuclear-weapon-free zones rely on the IAEA for verification and confidence in non-proliferation is best enhanced by outside inspection. However, in some areas regional inspection arrangements may well be useful or needed to supplement international safeguards.

Lastly, even as regards nuclear safety, it must be remembered that it is a global concern and that regional efforts to promote safety will not supplant but might well supplement the joint efforts made on a global basis. I am happy to end by telling you that the IAEA International Convention on Nuclear Safety will enter into operation in the spring of 1997.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018


  1. Employment
  2. Women
  3. Press

Stay in touch