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"Nuclear Challenges - Perspectives of Civil Society"

Vienna, Austria

I appreciate the initiative of the Kreisky Forum to arrange this seminar during the 40th anniversary year of the IAEA.

Bruno Kreisky belonged to a group of internationalist Social Democratic statesmen - like his Swedish colleague Palme. I was privileged to meet both many times. Bruno Kreisky hosted the IAEA at Schönbrunn on the occasion of the Agency's 25th anniversary in 1982.

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The discussions today will be in two parts. In these opening comments I shall touch on both, focusing on challenges we face.

Mankind's situation changed dramatically when we learnt to trigger the release of nuclear energy, some 50 years ago. We developed the means to pulverize and terrorize each other. We also developed a new almost unlimited source of electricity and heat.

Today the challenges for the civil society are essentially the same as 50 years ago - What President Eisenhower called "Atoms for Peace". That is, the challenges are how to prevent the destructive use of nuclear energy; and how to exploit its constructive potential.

In my view we have done very well so far and the prospects are promising that we can do even better in the future. For over 15 years it has been my privilege to contribute to these efforts by working in the IAEA.

First how can we exploit nuclear energy for development? There are many possibilities and many challenges. Most are relatively unproblematic, except finding resources.

Let me give some examples: A few days ago I was shown how Pakistan had vastly increased its cotton crop by using a mutant produced using radiation; how Pakistan uses nuclear tracing and measuring techniques to recover saline soil for agriculture and how nuclear medicine was used to diagnose and treat cancer.

I shall not discuss multitudes of other uses of nuclear techniques, except to mention that many of them are of great importance in the environment field, e.g. measuring CO2 in the atmosphere or using isotopic methods to trace the world climate far back.

It is chiefly two peaceful uses of nuclear energy that are controversial: nuclear power and food irradiation.

The IAEA is not urging any Member State to use nuclear power. Energy policies are the sovereign decision of Members States.

We do, however, keep data allowing us to compare the nuclear generation of electricity with other methods from several view points including cost and environmental impact.

Let me note some relevant points, however:

  • 17% of the world's electricity comes from nuclear power plants. If this electricity had been generated by coal, it would have increased the CO2 coming from fossil fuels by 9%.
  • Not surprisingly various scenarios for restraint and reduction of CO2 emissions show that an expanded use of nuclear power would be highly significant.

Currently, there is stagnation in the construction of nuclear power plants in the West. We see rapid growth only in East Asia. The use of nuclear power is controversial everywhere in various degrees. People are uneasy about radiation, although we know very much about it. What is done to lessen these fears?

The work includes strengthening safety in the operation of nuclear power plants.

States have primary responsibility in this area, but the IAEA has developed common international norms and there are mechanisms for mutual checking.

Now even safer nuclear power plants are being constructed. The "second generation" of plants, is here, and the "third generation" is coming.

The IAEA is a forum for discussion and exchange of experience.

The work also includes strengthening safety in waste disposal. Although no significant accidents have been linked to civilian waste, common international standards have been developed. An IAEA Convention was negotiated this year that incorporates mutual checking by States.

The volumes of nuclear waste are small. They can be isolated even for a very long time with high levels of safety against leakage. On the other hand, the waste from burnt fossil fuels is gigantic in volume, and some is toxic forever. It cannot be isolated, and the disposal sites are the atmosphere and surface of the earth.

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I turn now to the second range of questions: How to prevent the military use of nuclear energy. We have survived decades during which nuclear weapons were targeted in the East and West. Some think the peace was maintained due to the fear of any conflict escalating into nuclear war. Others think we were simply lucky. Whatever was the case, I can see four distinct challenges today:

First challenge:

 

  • To get the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China to reduce their nuclear arsenals to very low numbers.

     

    For the IAEA, there is a role to verify that the nuclear material given up by the military side be burnt up in reactors to generate electricity, or made unusable or stored peacefully. Discussions with the USA and Russia on such a role for the IAEA are under way.

    Second challenge:

     

  • To get all to refrain from testing any new nuclear bombs or other explosive devices. Most States will adhere to the comprehensive test ban and some which don't are likely to refrain anyway. The era of testing seems finished and a separate international verification organization is being set up in Vienna.

    Third challenge:

     

  • To get all but the five declared nuclear-weapon States to commit themselves to stay away from nuclear weapons. The prospects are good, if detente and nuclear disarmament continue. The NPT has been prolonged indefinitely. South Africa has become the first State to discard its nuclear weapon capacity. Iraq's attempt clandestinely to develop nuclear weapons was uncovered during the Gulf war and its capacity has been mapped by the IAEA and destroyed. North Korea's incorrect declaration of nuclear material was identified by the IAEA and its indigenous nuclear programme was halted following negotiations with the United States. As a result of these experiences, many measures have been taken to strengthen the IAEA's capacity to discover any undeclared material and installations, reducing considerably the risk of further cheating. The Board of Governors is about to approve a new protocol for stengthening the IAEA's safeguards in a few weeks.

    Fourth challenge:

     

  • To achieve sufficient control over all nuclear material so as to prevent any construction of bombs by regimes or terrorists. There is no room for complacency, but I note that trafficking in nuclear materials, although much publicized, does not seem to have led to any weapons capacity anywhere. The counter measures by governments and organizations have been strengthened. The IAEA is a focal point for information and for assistance to strengthen physical protection, of nuclear materials.

Now I turn to a final question: Can we get to a nuclear-weapon-free world? Regrettably, this is not a challenge we face in the short and medium term; We can only go in what we believe is the right direction. In my view, a world completely free of nuclear weapons would require a much more developed global security mechanism than the UN offers today. Global collective security does not exist yet. We are still at the level of balance of power.

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Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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