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Nuclear Power: Looking to the Future

Vienna, Austria

Beijing, China
China´s Tsinghua University

It is a pleasure for me to be here today at Tsinghua University. The partnership between China and the International Atomic Energy Agency dates back to 1984. It extends across the full spectrum of IAEA work - from technical cooperation in energy, food, water, health, industry and environmental protection to safety, security and safeguards. In the past two decades, China has transformed its economy, maintained unprecedented growth rates and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Nuclear technology has played a supportive role, and I am pleased that the IAEA has been able to make a small contribution.

The two major concerns facing humanity today are the pressing need for development in many parts of the world; and the importance of ensuring an effective system of international security. What is not always understood is how these two concerns - development and security - are interlinked, and the positive influence that energy could have on addressing these concerns.

Energy is essential for development. Nearly every aspect of development - from reducing poverty and raising living standards to improving health care and agricultural productivity - requires reliable access to modern energy sources. When these development needs remain unaddressed, the resulting misery often leads to conflicts and violence, which in turn affect development efforts and impact on regional and global stability.

In this context, it is important to consider the global energy imbalance. Today, 1.6 billion people are without access to electricity, and 2.4 billion rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, because they have no access to modern fuels. I was personally struck by this imbalance on a visit to Nigeria in 2004, where the per capita electricity consumption was only about 70 kilowatt-hours per year. That translates to an average availability of 8 watts - less than a normal light bulb - for each Nigerian citizen.

To put this in perspective: the developed countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), on average, consume electricity at a rate per capita of 8600 kilowatt-hours per year - roughly 100 times higher.

In China, electricity consumption per capita is about 1500 kilowatt-hours per year - significantly higher than many developing countries. Naturally consumption rates in the brightly lit cities of Beijing and Shanghai differs considerably from that in some remote rural areas. But it is clear, here in the world´s most populous nation, that energy has been central to China´s development. The growth in demand has required China to harness all energy resources, from coal and oil to hydro and nuclear.

Each year, the International Energy Agency of the OECD publishes an analysis of global energy trends. According to their World Energy Outlook 2006, published just last month, if current consumption trends and government policies continue, we will see a 53% increase in global energy consumption by 2030.

Two aspects of this analysis are especially interesting. The first is the expectation that 70% of the coming growth in demand will be from developing countries. The second is that, for the first time, the International Energy Agency said the increased use of nuclear power would help to meet the increase in energy demand, enhance the security of energy supply and mitigate carbon emissions.

Nuclear energy alone is not a panacea, but it is likely in the near future to have an increasing role as part of the global energy mix. Today I would like to consider why we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in nuclear power, and then review some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for China and other countries that have chosen the nuclear energy option.

The Current Global Status

As of October 2006, there were 442 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries. These reactors 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.

To date, the use of nuclear power has been concentrated in industrialized countries. In terms of new construction, however, the pattern is different; 16 of the 29 reactors now being built are in developing countries.

The highest percentage of existing reactors is in North America and Europe, but recent expansion has been most heavily centred in Asia. India has seven reactors under construction, and plans an eight-fold increase in capacity by 2022. Japan plans to add 13 more reactors to the grid by 2017. Pakistan and the Republic of Korea also have plans to expand their existing nuclear power capacity.

China now has ten reactors in operation and four under construction. China plans a more than five-fold expansion in its nuclear generating capacity by 2020, expanding from the current 7.6 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts.

In the near future, we may well see additional countries in the Asia-Pacific region choosing the nuclear power option. Indonesia recently announced that it has decided to build two 1000 megawatt reactors in central Java. Vietnam has also expressed its intention to move forward with a nuclear power programme.

This resurgence of interest in nuclear power is not, however, limited to Asia. Other countries such as Turkey are planning to introduce nuclear power programmes, and many others, such as Argentina, France, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine and the United States, are planning to expand existing programmes. It is important to understand the reasons that are driving this renewed interest.

The expanded G8 Summit in St. Petersburg this summer emphasized the importance of "global energy security". During my participation at this summit, I emphasized that, in my view, global energy security means fulfilling the energy needs of all countries and peoples - including the one-quarter of our fellow human beings I just mentioned who have no access to modern energy systems.

Reasons for the Renewed Interest in Nuclear Power

Energy Diversity and Energy Security
For many countries, nuclear power is a way to enhance the security and diversity of their energy supplies. This was also true in the 1970s, when concerns about energy security, triggered by disruptions in oil supply, were a major cause of nuclear expansion in countries such as Japan and France.

These energy security concerns are with us again. For some, diversifying a country´s suppliers and sources of energy is an essential buffer against fluctuations in fuel market prices. For others, energy security concerns may be rooted in the potential instability of political relationships with large oil and natural gas producers.

Nuclear energy has an advantage in this respect. Fuel costs make up only about 10–15% of the costs of nuclear generated electricity, so fluctuations in market prices are of lesser concern. And given the relatively large number of uranium producers, ensuring a reliable supply of nuclear reactor fuel has generally not been a problem.

Carbon Emissions and Environmental Concerns
Another factor driving the interest in nuclear power is that it emits almost no greenhouse gases. The complete nuclear power chain - from mining the uranium and manufacturing the fuel to constructing and operating the reactor and disposing of the waste - emits only 1–6 grams of carbon equivalent per kilowatt-hour. This is about the same negligible emission rate as wind and hydropower and many times less than coal, oil and natural gas.

Increasing international attention is being given to the impacts of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, including pollution and climate change effects, which could lead to higher global temperatures, rising sea levels that would threaten to submerge coastal regions, prolonged droughts, more frequent violent storms, and threats to many species. Nuclear power is seen by many - including the International Energy Agency I just mentioned - as part of the solution.

Last month at the UN Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, ministers from many countries - as well as global business leaders - called for more vigorous action to reduce the threat of climate change. Conference participants agreed to conduct a second review of the Kyoto Protocol in 2008, and agreed on a set of measures including an "Adaptation Fund" to help developing countries adapt to the effects of global warming.

Strong Performance
A critical factor driving the renewed interest in nuclear power - and a key to its continued future viability - is its strong performance record. Nuclear power is a mature technology with more than half a century of operating experience. And the past two decades have seen significant improvements in plant reliability, lower generating costs and a progressively improved safety record.

Key Aspects: Safety, Security and Non-Proliferation

For nuclear power to continue to be viable as a source of energy, it is vital that nuclear operators continue this strong performance. In this context, let me turn to a number of the concerns about nuclear power, and discuss how they are being addressed.

Nuclear Safety
First, consider nuclear safety. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 was clearly a setback to nuclear power. Many lives were lost. Thousands suffered major health impacts, and there were significant environmental and social impacts. The accident was the result of less than optimal reactor design, compounded by gross safety mismanagement. But ironically, this event also prompted major improvements in our approach to nuclear safety.

A key change was the development of a so-called international "nuclear safety regime". The IAEA updated its body of safety standards to reflect best industry practices. International conventions were put in place, creating legally binding norms to enhance the safety of nuclear activities. A systematic analysis of risk was used to ensure that safety upgrades would be made in areas that would bring the greatest safety return. And, importantly, both the IAEA and the World Association of Nuclear Operators created international networks to conduct peer reviews, compare safety practices, and exchange operating information to improve safety performance.

The international nuclear safety regime has been demonstrating its effectiveness for two decades. But it would be a misunderstanding to regard nuclear safety as something that can be "fixed". As Chairman Richard Meserve of the International Nuclear Safety Group wrote to me recently, "Every [nuclear] operator must establish and maintain a ´safety culture´ in which management demonstrates that safety is the overriding priority and in which every member of staff recognizes his or her individual responsibility for safety."

A key aspect of an effective safety culture is taking full advantage of operating experience. Experts note that serious nuclear safety events are almost always preceded by less serious "precursor" events. By taking prompt action based on the "precursors", the probability of a serious accident can be reduced. But to do this effectively requires a number of things:

  1. careful analysis of the root causes of events;
  2. mechanisms that facilitate sharing this information with other nuclear operators worldwide; and
  3. a commitment to transparency by all nuclear power countries and operators - including making use of peer review safety missions - as part of an ongoing process of mutual learning.

Another cornerstone for a sustainable safety infrastructure is a technically competent regulatory body with the independent authority to make safety judgments and with adequate financial resources. Regulatory oversight should not be perceived as a burden on nuclear operators, but as insurance for its sustained growth. Ambitious plans for nuclear power expansion require commensurate support for safety infrastructure. China is commended for being one of the earliest users of the IAEA Safety Standards. The IAEA remains ready to assist China in their effective application.

Nuclear Security
Nuclear security has also become a major concern in recent years. The indiscriminate attacks by extremist groups in many regions has led to the re-evaluation of security in every industrial sector, including the nuclear sector. In the past five years, the IAEA in cooperation with many nations, including China, has worked on every continent to help countries better control their nuclear material and radiological sources and protect their nuclear facilities. Here, too, the international community is making good progress. While much remains to be done, nuclear installations around the world have added protective barriers and taken other measures to counter security risks and vulnerabilities.

Management of Spent Fuel and Disposal of High Level Radioactive Waste
The management of spent fuel and disposal of high level radioactive waste remain a challenge for the nuclear power industry. The amount of spent nuclear fuel produced annually - about 10 000 tonnes - is actually small when contrasted with the 25 billion tonnes of carbon waste from fossil fuels that is released directly into the atmosphere. Experts agree that the geological disposal of high level radioactive waste is safe and technologically feasible. But public opinion will likely remain skeptical - and nuclear waste disposal will likely remain a topic of controversy - until the first geological repositories are operational and the disposal technologies fully demonstrated.

The greatest progress on deep geological disposal has been made in Finland, Sweden and the United States. But it will still be more than a decade before the first such facility is operational.

In the meantime, the trend has been to construct and use above-ground interim storage facilities, and many countries are exploring the feasibility of interim storage for 100 years or more. An increasing number of countries are also interested in ensuring waste retrievability for future flexibility. Research is also progressing on the use of fast reactors and accelerator driven systems to incinerate and transmute long lived waste, in order to reduce the volume and radiotoxicity of waste to be sent to geologic repositories.

For some time, I have been advocating the consideration of multinational approaches to the management of spent fuel and disposal of high level radioactive waste. More than 50 countries have their spent nuclear fuel stored in temporary sites, awaiting disposal or reprocessing. Many of these countries do not have the technology or appropriate sites for geological disposal, and the costs for countries with small nuclear programmes would be prohibitive.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Perhaps the most serious concern relates to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the same time that we are seeing rising expectations for nuclear power, we are also witnessing concerns regarding the spread of sensitive nuclear technology. Particularly sensitive are nuclear operations such as enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing - activities that are part of a peaceful nuclear programme, but also can be used to produce the high enriched uranium and plutonium used in nuclear weapons. Countries that have such operations are only a short step away from a nuclear weapons capability.

The recent nuclear weapon test by the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) has brought the need to control the spread of enrichment and reprocessing capability sharply into focus, both here in the region and worldwide. This event also re-emphasizes the urgent need to establish a universal ban on nuclear testing. In resolution 1172 (1998), the Security Council reaffirmed "the crucial importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as the cornerstones of the international regime on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and as essential foundations for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament".

The DPRK nuclear test is a clear setback to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. While North Korea’s nuclear test is a matter of deep concern and regret, it unfortunately came as no surprise. The IAEA first notified the Security Council of North Korea´s non-compliance with its safeguards commitments in 1992, and again in January 2003, after our inspectors were forced to leave the country and North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT. The case of North Korea underscores the importance in such cases for the international community, including all parties concerned, to engage in an immediate and sustained dialogue to address the situation and its underlying causes.

China has taken a leadership role in trying to pursue progress through the six-party talks. I am pleased to note the recent agreement to resume these talks. The IAEA stands ready to work with the DPRK - and with all others - towards a solution that, inter alia, makes use of the Agency´s verification capability to assure the international community that all nuclear activities in the DPRK are exclusively for peaceful purposes. Equally, this solution would seek to address the security, economic and other concerns of the DPRK.

The IAEA plays an important role in curbing nuclear proliferation. Under NPT safeguards agreements, we inspect countries to verify that their peaceful nuclear programmes are not used as a cloak to divert material to non-peaceful uses. However, the extent of the Agency’s authority remains uneven from country to country. Safeguards agreements are now in force in the vast majority of States Party to the NPT. But 30 States still have not fulfilled their legal obligation to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement, and over 100 States have yet to bring an additional protocol into force - which is essential in order for the Agency to provide assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.

As more countries industrialize, controlling the spread of technology is becoming increasingly difficult. And changing times requires that we adapt our strategies accordingly. For some time, I have been advocating that we consider a multinational approach to enrichment and reprocessing - to ensure that no one country has the capability to independently produce sensitive nuclear material. This would occur in two steps.

The first step would create a mechanism for the "assurance of supply" of nuclear fuel, possibly including a fuel bank to be managed by the IAEA. For countries that use nuclear fuel for electricity generation, this mechanism would serve as a supplier of last resort, thereby removing the risk of having their fuel supply interrupted for non-commercial reasons. It would also reduce the motivation, and the justification, for new countries to invest in these proliferation sensitive operations.

The second step would seek to bring any new operations for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation under multinational control. Over time, these multinational controls would also be extended to facilities that already exist - to ensure that all countries are treated equally in terms of their nuclear capabilities, and to de-link these fuel cycle operations from possible use as a strategic deterrent.

Technological Innovation

The future of nuclear power will also be greatly impacted by technological innovation - the development of new reactor and fuel cycle technologies. Current nuclear R&D projects are naturally focused on enhancing nuclear safety, reducing proliferation risks and improving economic performance.

China is a member of 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.

Other nuclear innovation projects are also progressing. The Generation IV International Forum has selected six innovative nuclear systems for collaborative R&D and is exploring their technical and commercial viability. INPRO and Generation IV exchange information on relevant topics, and the Agency is collaborating with Generation IV on some safety and technical research initiatives. The United States also recently launched its "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership", focused on developing proliferation-resistant recycling technologies and reactor systems.

Many developing countries have been particularly interested in efforts to develop small and medium-size reactor designs. These designs allow a more incremental investment, provide a better match to grid capacity in developing countries, and are more easily adapted to a broad range of industrial settings and applications - such as district heating and seawater desalination. Many countries, including Argentina, China, Russia, South Africa and South Korea, are currently working on developing new reactor designs in this size range, which may well be in high demand.

The world´s largest fusion facility - ITER - is to be built in Cadarache, France. A formal agreement among the parties, including China, was signed at a ministerial meeting earlier this month. ITER is to provide a scientific and engineering demonstration of fusion technology in conditions relevant to operating a fusion reactor for power production. The IAEA is the depository of ITER related agreements. Of course it is likely to be many years before fusion technology can be harnessed as a viable source of energy. Nonetheless, the benefits would be substantial. Fusion uses a relatively abundant fuel source, produces only minimal amounts of long lived radioactive waste, and is based on a nuclear reaction that is inherently safe.

China and the IAEA: Partners for Common Objectives

For many years, China has been a strong and supportive partner of the IAEA. China is a party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the Convention on Early Notification and Assistance in the Case of an Accident or Radiological Emergency — and next week, China will become a party to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

The IAEA has a large and active technical cooperation programme in China. This technical cooperation includes many peaceful nuclear applications, some of which are not well known. For example, consider the area of food and agriculture. China has fully one-fifth of the world’s population, and manages to feed them on just seven per cent of the world’s arable land. Mutation breeding using nuclear techniques has been used with the Agency’s assistance to develop new varieties of crops - including China´s staple, rice - with enhanced quality and yield.

Another example is in the area of human health. As income and living standards have risen for China´s population, people are living longer and facing the diseases of older age, such as cancer. China now has about 45 000 departments of diagnostic radiology in hospitals across the country, with 120 000 radiation technicians. Nuclear medicine is being applied in 2500 hospitals.

These and other nuclear and radiological applications are helping to raise Chinese standards of health, agriculture, industry and other sectors, often in collaboration with the IAEA. The Agency has also provided extensive technical cooperation in the fields of nuclear safety, engineering and technology, in ways that continue to support China´s expanding nuclear power programme.


The need to ensure adequate and reliable energy supplies is directly relevant to development, and to national and international security. As such, energy issues will be a central feature of the global agenda for the foreseeable future. At the IAEA, we stand ready to assist China and our other partners around the world in finding solutions that are best suited to their needs and priorities.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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