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Nuclear Power: A Changing Landscape

Vienna, Austria

For the past five decades, the role of nuclear power has been evolving globally. This evolution has been shaped by factors such as economic performance, the availability of other energy sources, nuclear safety and proliferation concerns, and advances in nuclear technology.

Turkey´s interest in nuclear energy dates back as far as the 1960s. From time to time, nuclear power projects have been given serious consideration, to some extent reflecting these global fluctuations in the nuclear power landscape. So it was not a surprise when the Turkish Government recently announced its plans to launch a nuclear power programme. In this context, it may be useful to review the factors that are driving a resurgence of interest in nuclear power globally - and also to review the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Turkey as a newcomer to nuclear power.

The Current Global Status

As of June 2006, there were 441 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries. They total about 370 gigawatts of generating capacity, and they supply about 16% of the world´s electricity. This percentage has been roughly stable since 1986, indicating that nuclear power has grown at about the same rate as total global electricity for 20 years.

To date, the use of nuclear power has been concentrated in industrialized countries. In terms of new construction, however, the pattern is different. Sixteen of the twenty-seven new reactors under construction are in developing countries. And while the highest percentage of existing reactors is in North America and Europe, recent expansion has been most heavily centred in Asia. China currently has three reactors under construction, and plans a 5-to-6-fold expansion in nuclear generating capacity over the next 15 years. India has eight reactors under construction, and plans a 10-fold increase in capacity by 2022.

Projections for future growth have increased in recent years. The IAEA´s most conservative projection - which only accounts for power reactors under construction or currently planned - shows nuclear power capacity growing by about 13% through 2020, and then leveling off as some plants are retired. The high projection, which incorporates all proposed nuclear power projects, shows steady growth to about 640 gigawatts by 2030 - almost 75% more than current capacity.

Factors Driving the Resurgence of Interest in Nuclear Power

What are the factors driving this resurgent interest in nuclear power?

The first is strong performance. Nuclear power´s strong and sustained track record is reflected in nearly 12 000 reactor-years of experience, with continual reductions in plant down-time, lower generating costs and a progressively improved safety record.

The Chernobyl accident in 1986 was clearly a setback to nuclear power. Many lives were lost and thousands suffered major health impacts, in addition to the significant environmental and social impacts. The accident was the result of less than optimal reactor design and gross human error. But ironically, it also brought about major changes in our approach to nuclear safety, including the development of a so-called international "nuclear safety culture" based on constant review and improvement, thorough analysis of operating experience, and consistent sharing of best practices. This safety culture has been demonstrating its effectiveness for two decades, and has not gone unnoticed by the public or by investors.

As with civil aviation, bioengineering, or any other advanced technology, nuclear power does not come with absolute safety guarantees. What is important is to understand clearly the risks and benefits. Over the years of the nuclear safety regime, substantial strengthening of safety standards and practices has produced many insights on how to minimize specific safety risks. For example, in countries with vulnerabilities to earthquakes, extensive work has been done on safety analysis, leading to solutions through seismic design considerations.

Second, global energy forecasts anticipate persistent long-term growth in electricity demand, which will increase the demand for all energy sources. In the past 35–40 years, global energy consumption has nearly doubled, due to population growth and the drive to raise living standards. Here in Turkey, energy consumption increased 8% in 2005 alone.

According to the World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the increase in energy demand will continue to intensify. If the policies of world governments remain as they are today, global energy consumption will be almost 60% higher in 2030 than it is now, and will double by mid-century.

The third factor is energy security. In the 1970s concerns about energy security, triggered by disruptions in oil supply, were a major cause of nuclear expansion in countries such as Japan and France. Today, France depends on nuclear power for 78% of its electricity supply. These energy security concerns are with us again. When the heads of the G-8 countries meet later this month in St. Petersburg, energy security is expected to top their agenda.

Fourth are environmental concerns. If fossil fuels continue to dominate energy use at current ratios, they will account for close to 85% of the increase in the coming decades. We will also face increasing concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, which escalate the potential for irreversible climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with 189 members, was the first step in recognizing the significance of this phenomenon. Last year´s entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol was an initial step towards giving emphasis to this concern, in terms of implementation.

Nuclear power emits almost no greenhouse gases. The complete nuclear power chain - from mining and fuel manufacture to construction, operation and waste disposal - emits only 1–6 grams of carbon equivalent per kilowatt-hour. This is about the same as wind and hydropower and many times less than coal, oil and natural gas. In the past this advantage of nuclear power has not been a major consideration in the investors´ decisions. Now, in those countries with emission restrictions - meaning primarily developed countries that have joined the Kyoto Protocol - avoiding such emissions brings with it a financial benefit.

As a result of the above factors, some countries have begun to initiate specific nuclear power expansion plans. In addition to China and India, which I just mentioned, this includes countries such as Finland, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation. The United States has gone forward with new energy incentives, which would provide tax credits for the first 6000 megawatts of new nuclear construction.

Last year, the IAEA co-hosted an international conference in Paris that was attended by high-level representatives of 74 governments, including Turkey. The vast majority of participants expressed their belief that nuclear power could make a valuable contribution to meeting energy needs and sustaining global development in the 21st century.

Nuclear energy alone is not a panacea. The surge in global energy demand will require continued usage of most, if not all, available energy sources - as well as improvements in energy efficiency. But with the reduction of carbon emissions becoming a top priority, increasing emphasis will be given to "clean" energy sources - finding cleaner ways to burn coal, for example, and using renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal plants. Within this array of choices, nuclear energy stands out for its combination of low emissions and the capacity to provide the "baseload" amounts of power needed to support large urban areas.

Nuclear Construction For New Countries

Nuclear power also presents a number of specific challenges. It requires significant up-front financial investment, and an array of supportive infrastructure. These and other key elements must be thoroughly considered to ensure realistic goals and sensible planning for a country embarking on a nuclear power programme. I would like to turn now to consider a number of these aspects, with a particular focus on the outlook facing Turkey.

Infrastructure to Support a Nuclear Power Programme
For new countries entering the nuclear power arena, the biggest challenges often relate to the infrastructure needed to support such an endeavor. On the nuclear front this essential infrastructure has not always been carefully defined.

The IAEA has recently published a document that gives guidance on basic nuclear infrastructure needs, with a useful checklist for State authorities. These infrastructure needs include, for example: participation in international nuclear treaties and conventions; the national nuclear legal framework and nuclear regulations; strategies for fuel supply and managing spent fuel and radioactive waste; human resources and the nuclear education programme; economic strategies and the needed financial support; the industrial infrastructure to support nuclear operators and regulators; vendor contracts to supply the suitable nuclear technology; and the physical facilities where nuclear operations will take place.

There are three important questions related to new nuclear infrastructure. How much is needed? What is the desired timing for acquiring it? And should a country develop all of this infrastructure domestically, or should some parts be imported, leased from vendors, or shared with other countries?

Naturally, each country must take its own decisions, but the IAEA is also able to provide expert assistance in this area if requested. Whatever choices are made, extensive and rigorous planning is essential, with "cradle-to-grave" considerations ranging from upfront financing and licensing all the way through decommissioning and the future disposition of spent fuel and waste.

International cooperation and sharing of energy infrastructure are not new, even for nuclear power. Europe has taken substantial steps to integrate its energy market. Many countries share integrated electricity grids, oil and natural pipelines. The replacement of Lithuania´s Ignalina nuclear power plant is being considered as a joint nuclear project of Baltic States. This could result in economic and safety benefits.

In all cases however, the phasing is important, particularly because of cost considerations, an important factor for developing countries with limited resources. For example, most industry managers agree that the build-up of a nuclear workforce should be thoroughly planned but not necessarily initiated until construction has started, since the years that it takes to build a plant provides time to train nearly all portions of this workforce. Similar considerations should be undertaken for the phased build-up of an independent regulatory body, plant support facilities, and other infrastructure aspects.

The IAEA has also been developing practical guidance on the main activities and milestones associated with the early phases of development for a country introducing nuclear power.

Technological Innovation
With rising expectations for nuclear power expansion, technological innovation has become a strong focus as the nuclear industry looks to the future. Current R&D projects on new reactor and fuel cycle technologies are focused on enhancing nuclear safety, reducing proliferation risks, minimizing waste generation and improving economic performance.

The IAEA´s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) works to ensure that the future needs of all countries, including developing countries, are considered when innovative nuclear systems are evaluated. Many developing countries have been particularly interested in efforts to develop small and medium-size reactor designs. These designs allow a more incremental investment than is required for a big reactor, and provide a better match to grid capacity in countries with smaller grids.

Turkey: A Solid IAEA Partner
For many years, Turkey has been a supportive partner of the IAEA.

In the field of safety and security, Turkey is a party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the conventions on early notification and assistance in the case of an accident or radiological emergency. Turkey has achieved IAEA milestones related to establishing a regulatory framework and controlling occupational radiation exposure. Additional milestones to be achieved include: radiological protection of medical patients; environment and waste issues; and emergency preparedness. Turkey has also made clear its intention to use IAEA Safety Standards in establishing and maintaining its nuclear power programme.

On the non-proliferation front, Turkey is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with both a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an additional protocol in force.


With this brief overview, I have tried to outline some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, with respect to the role of nuclear energy as part of the global energy mix. With its recent decision to embark on a nuclear power programme, Turkey will be facing its own set of technological and institutional challenges. At the IAEA, we stand ready to work with you in finding the solutions that are best suited to your needs and priorities.

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Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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