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New Horizons in International Co-operative Innovation

Vienna, Austria

All independent analyses and forecasts of global energy needs project large increases in the century ahead. The principal drivers are global population growth and economic development in today's developing countries. Nearly all analyses reach the conclusion that nuclear energy has a strong role to play, particularly if the goal is truly sustainable development, not just economic development.

Nuclear power broadens the resource base by putting uranium to productive use. It reduces traditional harmful air pollution and solid waste. It provides 16% of the world's electricity; has the potential for substantial expansion in the electricity sector; and has the further potential to supply chemical fuels via hydrogen for transportation and direct use, and to increase potable water supplies through nuclear desalination of seawater. Nuclear energy increases the world's stock of technological and human capital. It is ahead of other energy technologies in internalizing externalities. From safety to waste disposal to decommissioning - the costs of all of these are in most countries already included in the price of nuclear electricity. And it avoids greenhouse gas emissions. The complete nuclear power chain, from resource extraction to waste disposal including reactor and facility construction, emits only 2-6 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour, about the same as wind and solar power and two orders of magnitude below coal, oil, and even natural gas. For countries with limited domestic fuel resources, nuclear energy also increases the stability and security of energy supplies, due to the diverse roster of stable uranium producers, and the small storage space required for a long-term fuel supply.

The Brundtland definition of sustainable development is all about expanding assets and keeping options open. And the mission of the Agency's activities that I will discuss is to encourage and promote innovation such that nuclear energy will be an available, relevant, desirable, and expansive - not expensive, expansive - option for all countries that may wish to use it - in the future as well as now, and in developing countries as well as in today's established nuclear power countries.

Innovative Technologies and the Future of Nuclear Power

The 21st century promises the most open, competitive, globalized markets in human history, and the most rapid pace of technological change ever. If a technology is to survive and flourish in this century, continual innovation is essential. This is especially true for nuclear energy if it wants to move beyond the "electricity ghetto." Nuclear's 16% of global electricity translates into only two to six percent of total global energy use, depending on which convention you prefer for converting nuclear electricity into its primary energy equivalent. For a truly substantial future contribution of nuclear energy - one that takes nuclear's percentage of the world's primary energy supply well beyond today's single digits to 20%, 50% or more - continuous innovation, focussed on future user needs, will be the key. Without it the full potential of nuclear will remain closed.

 

The critical problems to be overcome are well known:

  • high capital costs for new plants,
  • proliferation resistance across the full fuel cycle,
  • safety across all nuclear facilities, and
  • environmental protection, including the issues of spent fuel and waste management.

These are the focus of both national initiatives and international collaborative efforts - most significantly the Generation-IV International Forum (GIF) and INPRO. GIF's emphasis is innovative reactor and fuel cycle technologies that could be deployed in roughly 30 years from now. GIF addresses the needs of mainly industrialized countries and is working to solve the critical problems of nuclear power largely from a technology development standpoint.

All these efforts recognize that forward-looking long-term innovations that anticipate needs 30 or 50 years in the future are not the strength of liberalized, unregulated markets. Such markets have many advantages in terms of rapid dissemination of information through prices, attracting resources to where they are immediately most cost effective, and reducing near-term consumer prices. But so-called "market failures", when it comes to anticipating the future, are long recognized and well analysed. Left to themselves, markets under-invest in fundamental science, basic research, and long-term innovation directed at customers who are too poor or unconnected to give investors an immediate return, but who will in fact dominate the markets of the future.

The responsibility for fundamental science, basic research, and long-term innovation falls therefore largely on governments. For energy in particular, innovation for long-term options ready to replace limited fossil fuel supplies, and responsive to the growing premium put on clean energy alternatives, will depend very much on government investment and government support.

Moreover a number of the issues included in my earlier list as important to nuclear energy's future, are non-technical and relate more to the nuclear energy infrastructure, legal and institutional provisions, and human resources. Globalisation and the rise of developing countries will require progressive modifications of infrastructures, institutions, and legal provisions - both nationally and regionally - that facilitate the deployment of nuclear power systems in developing countries.

Given these diverse and complex challenges for a truly substantial expansion of nuclear energy, any successful wide-scale deployment will require broad international cooperation and the consolidation of efforts from many countries. The driving forces - specifically growing populations, economies, and energy needs - are global, and so are the major concerns, especially non-proliferation.

International Project on Innovative Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO)

INPRO is a response by interested IAEA Member States to these challenges. It is open to all, and its membership is diverse - including developed and developing countries, current nuclear power countries and countries interested in the option for the future, and both technology suppliers and technology users. Broad membership helps confront the paradox that much of the innovative expertise in the world is in established nuclear power countries, while much of the growth potential to which that expertise must be applied is in very different, developing countries.

INPRO looks to the middle of this century. Starting with an analysis of projected global energy needs, the project has developed "user requirements" in the areas of economics; sustainability and environment, including waste management; safety; proliferation resistance; and, in particular, cross-cutting issues, which include infrastructure and industrial requirements, legal and institutional provisions, and educational needs. These are presented in the Phase-IA report - which was released in June and is available here to all Scientific Forum and General Conference participants - together with an assessment methodology for applying INPRO's user requirements to specific innovative nuclear concepts and designs.

Among the report's conclusions, approved by the INPRO Steering Committee of participating Member States, are:

  • that INPRO be continued, and co-operation and co-ordination between INPRO and other initiatives on innovative nuclear energy systems be strengthened;
  • that case studies be encouraged to enable Member States and independent analysts to assess prospective innovative nuclear energy systems using the INPRO methodology; and
  • that feedback and experience from case studies be used to sharpen and adjust the INPRO user requirements and methodology to continually improve their usefulness.

Phase-IB of INPRO is indeed now in the midst of several case studies to test the requirements as currently formulated and identify improvements. Five case studies have begun by the following INPRO participants, and the project encourages and would welcome additional case studies from all interested parties. The current five are:

  • Argentina with respect to the CAREM-X reactor and associated fuel cycle technology;
  • Brazil with respect to the FBNR reactor concept;
  • India with respect to the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor and its associated fuel cycle;
  • the Russian Federation with respect to the BN-800 reactor and its equilibrium fuel cycle; and
  • the Republic of Korea with respect to the DUPIC fuel cycle.

In addition several further top-level experts will perform case studies providing supplementary assessments of the INPRO requirements and methodology. Again, we would welcome additional studies, and the feedback and experience from these case studies will help continually improve both the requirements and methodology.

While the emphasis in the case studies and INPRO's next phase is the strengthening and application of the requirements and methodology, we will extend our work characterized by the recent "Three-Agency Study" and have started preparation in parallel of status reports on innovative nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel cycles that could potentially meet INPRO requirements.

Upon successful completion of Phase-I, a prospective Phase-II of INPRO would be based on any advice of the INPRO Steering Committee and the approval of the participating Member States. Its focus could be:

  • examining in the context of available technologies the feasibility of beginning an international collaborative project; and
  • identifying innovative technologies that might be appropriate for such an international project.

Looking back on what has been accomplished then in INPRO's first phase, the reviews have been good. This is reflected by, among other things, the decision of the IAEA Board of Governors in July 2003 to include INPRO in the regular budget of the Agency.

New Directions of IAEA Activities on Innovative Nuclear Technologies

Let me shift gears now, to talk about new directions for the IAEA in our work on innovative technologies. I want to make sure there is a clear distinction between the report I have given on INPRO and what I will talk about now. They both have to do with innovation so there is the potential for confusion. But there is much the Agency does to promote and encourage innovation that is not under the rubric of INPRO, and that is also the case with what I want to discuss now.

I want to focus on two points, the importance of the whole fuel cycle - not just the reactor - to choices among nuclear concepts for the future, and the need for a comprehensive, holistic, integrative nuclear system modelling tool to help guide these choices.

Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Let me start with the importance of the whole fuel cycle. Currently the fuel cycle poses few problems at today's scale of nuclear power generation with two exceptions. First are developing countries who are newcomers to the field and have no relevant infrastructure. Second, and very important, are proliferation concerns, which I will return to. Current fuel cycle investments remain small compared to those in the power generation sector.

But for the sort of large-scale nuclear expansion I presented at the beginning of my talk, it is perhaps better to consider the reactor as just one component in its larger fuel cycle. The fuel cycle will determine the extent of nuclear fuel resources and how efficiently they are used. It will determine the extent of nuclear waste and how efficiently it is disposed of. It will determine the environmental impacts by which different energy systems are increasingly judged. And it will determine the ease or difficulty of reducing proliferation risks to provide the assurances that governments and the public demand.

There may well be no single nuclear fuel cycle strategy that is best in the long term for all countries - all have unique sensitivities - and long-term strategies will have to focus not just on a preferred end-point, but also on the transition from the technologies and programmes that are in place today, to that eventual end-point. The challenges are substantial.

But our topic this morning is "New Horizons", which implies that we should be looking well beyond old horizons - especially, I believe, in this area of the fuel cycle. In particular we believe that new consideration should be given to the feasibility of multilateral co-operation on key aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly in view of the increasing non-proliferation, safety, security and technical challenges facing nuclear power. This consideration could include the merits of restricting or adopting a multilateral approach to the use of weapon-usable material in civilian nuclear programmes, as well as limiting the processing of such material - and the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment - to international centres, under appropriate rules of transparency, control and assurance of supply. Consideration should also be given to the merits of multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.

Going further in this direction would indeed recapture some of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's vision in his 1953 Atoms for Peace Speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he made the specific proposal that "The governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency. … The atomic energy agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials".

Nuclear System Modelling

The second point I want to address, distinct from INPRO, is the need for a comprehensive, integrative nuclear system modelling tool covering the full fuel cycle to help guide research, development and demonstration (RD&D) choices. We have the Generation-IV International Forum, we have INPRO, we have a number of national initiatives. But even excellently formulated requirements have limited value without an understandable, transparent, but comprehensive mechanism for applying them to new candidate concepts, for comparing alternatives, and for drawing conclusions about future research and development directions. As has been noted in connection with the M.I.T. study that is the subject of the next presentation, without such a mechanism it is too easy for different groups to effectively conclude whatever they want to. I agree and believe the M.I.T. study's recommendation that the U.S. Department of Energy establish a Nuclear System Modeling project with strong international co-operation is an excellent recommendation.

We at the Agency have begun investigating the potential for a co-operative approach towards an eventual nuclear system modeling tool. We will design an approach that will comprehensively cover the complete fuel cycle and benefit from, among other things, the Agency's broad membership (particularly from developing countries and aspiring nuclear "have-nots"), its energy modeling expertise and experience particularly in the Planning and Economic Studies section, and its unique expertise in safeguards and security. We hope this co-operative approach will encourage mutually beneficial consistency and co-ordination among different associated studies conducted at national, regional, and global levels, while still recognizing national differences in nuclear resources, fuel cycle histories, technological experience and expertise, institutional capabilities, expansion plans, and waste disposal possibilities.

Conclusion

In our activities for the future of nuclear power, we look forward to, and are always working towards, continually expanding co-operation with existing and new initiatives in Member States, including in particular the Generation IV International Forum.

The Agency will continue to undertake timely efforts in the initiation, promotion, and co-ordination of international activities on all issues critical for future deployment of nuclear power. I hope you, and we, will take full advantage of this session to discuss these issues. We are fortunate to have a remarkable collection of top-rank managers, officials, and experts from both industrialized and developing countries pursuing the future expansion of nuclear power. Not all their analyses of the best way forward agree in detail, but I do believe they - we - all share a general consensus that there can be no progress in nuclear power without broad international co-operation and the collaborative efforts of many countries. I am deeply convinced that the IAEA has a responsibility to help assure that such co-operation takes place and is effective. Thank you.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018

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