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Nuclear Power: Preparing for the Future

Vienna, Austria

 Paris, France
International Conference on Nuclear Power for the 21st Century

It is a pleasure for me to address this conference on nuclear power for the 21st Century. Today I will discuss a few aspects of the evolving global scenario for nuclear power. All indicators show that an increased level of emphasis on subjects such as fast growing energy demands, security of energy supply, and the risk of climate change are driving a re-consideration, in some quarters, of the need for greater investment in nuclear power.

The decisions that emerge from this debate will have long range implications, and require a degree of planning that looks at least several decades into the future. This morning I would like to offer a brief review of the current picture, and to outline a number of issues that, in my view, will be crucial in determining the contribution of nuclear power to the future global energy mix.

The Global Energy Imbalance

But I would like to begin by placing these topics in context — the context of our current global energy imbalance. I was personally reminded of this imbalance on a recent trip to Ghana and Nigeria. Per capita electricity consumption in Ghana is only about 300 kilowatt-hours per year, and in Nigeria it´s closer to 70 kilowatt-hours per year. That translates to an average availability of 8 watts — less than a normal light bulb — for each Nigerian citizen.

Contrast that with France, where per capita consumption is over 7300 kilowatt-hours per year — a factor of 100 times greater — slightly less than the OECD average of 8000 kilowatt hours per year, and well below the consumption rates, for example, in Scandinavian countries.

The imbalance in energy availability in developed versus developing countries is a matter of great impact. When we consider the Millennium Development Goals proposed just five years ago — such as the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal access to fresh water, and improved health care — it is quickly evident that the availability of energy overall, and electricity in particular, is central to our ability as an international community to deliver on each of those goals.

The disparity in energy supply is directly related to the disparity in standards of living, which in turn creates disparities in opportunity and hope — and, I would contend, leads to the sort of despair and insecurity that give rise to tensions in many regions of the developing world. Here, in the "City of Light", it might be easy to forget the common estimate that approximately 1.6 billion people around the world lack access to modern energy services; but as we look to the century that lies before us, "connecting the unconnected" will be a key to progress.

The Expected Substantial Growth in Energy Demand

Given this context, any discussion of the energy sector in the 21st century must begin by acknowledging the expected substantial growth in energy demand in the coming decades. This expectation is based on three factors: the drive to raise living standards in the developing world to which I have already alluded, continued population growth, and the never-ceasing expansion in consumer products and technologies that increase the quality of life but consume additional energy.

Let me illustrate. If the developing world were raised to the global average energy consumption rate — about half the standard of Eastern Europe — the net result would be a 35% increase in global energy use. If we account for the population growth predicted by 2020, the net increase would be 60%. So it should be no surprise that even the most conservative estimates predict at least a doubling of energy usage by mid-century.

The Current Picture: An Emerging Focus on Nuclear Power

What remains unclear, of course, is what role nuclear energy will play in meeting this increased demand. While the current outlook remains mixed, there is clearly a sense of rising expectations for nuclear power. The near term projections released in 2004 by both the IAEA and the OECD International Energy Agency are markedly different from those of just four years ago. The IAEA´s low projection — based on the most conservative assumptions — predicts 427 gigawatts of global nuclear capacity in 2020, the equivalent of 127 more 1000 megawatt nuclear plants than previous projections.

This change of expectation is rooted in specific plans and actions in a number of countries to expand nuclear power. The new expectations regarding nuclear power, particularly over the longer term, have also been strengthened by the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol. In the past, the virtual absence of restrictions or taxes on greenhouse gas emissions has meant that nuclear power´s advantage — of low emissions — has had no tangible economic value. The widespread, coordinated emission restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol will likely change that over the longer term.

New Construction
China plans to raise its total installed nuclear electricity generating capacity from the current 6.5 gigawatts to 36 gigawatts by 2020. India plans to expand its nuclear capacity 10-fold by 2022, and 100-fold by mid-century. The Russian Federation plans to raise its nuclear capacity from the current 22 gigawatts to 40–45 gigawatts by 2020.

Elsewhere, plans remain more moderate, but it is clear that nuclear energy is regaining stature as a serious option. When Finland pours the concrete for Olkiluoto-3 later this year, it will be the first new nuclear construction in Western Europe since 1991 — and Elecricité de France has recently selected Flamanville as the site of a European Pressurized Water Reactor, with construction set for 2007. The new European Union accession countries, as well as other Eastern European countries with nuclear power, have expressed a determination to retain and expand the nuclear option. Even in Poland, where nuclear development was halted by Parliamentary decision in 1990, the Council of Ministers earlier this year approved a draft energy policy that explicitly includes nuclear power.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of last year had approved 30 extensions of nuclear plant licences of 20 years each. To date, about three quarters of the USA´s 104 nuclear power plants have applied or stated their intention to apply for licence extensions. The US Department of Energy has also approved financial assistance to two industry consortia for nuclear power plant licensing demonstration projects, which would make new nuclear construction in the USA a near-term possibility.

Increased Availability, Sustained Safety Performance, Improved Economics
Much of the increase in nuclear generating capacity over the past decade has been credited not to new construction, but to the increased availability of existing plants — a change tied directly to improvements in global safety performance. To understand the current picture, it is important to understand this trend.

The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 prompted the creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), and revolutionized the IAEA approach to nuclear power plant safety. Both organizations created networks to conduct peer reviews, compare safety practices, and exchange vital operating information to improve safety performance. The IAEA updated its body of safety standards to reflect best industry practices, and put in place legally binding norms in the form of international safety conventions. And a more systematic analysis of risk has been used to ensure that changes made were in areas that would bring the greatest safety return.

Although the focus of this international effort was on improving safety, the secondary benefit was a steady increase in nuclear plant availability and productivity — an increase also supported by improved management, better preventive maintenance practices and technological enhancements. In 1990, nuclear plants on average were generating electricity 71% of the time. As of 2003, that figure stood at 81% — an improvement in productivity equal to adding more than 25 new 1000 megawatt nuclear plants — all at relatively minimal cost.

The result is that existing well-run nuclear power plants have become increasingly valuable assets. Although the initial capital cost of a nuclear plant is high, the operating costs have become relatively low and stable. These improvements to safety and economics have not escaped the notice of investors. They have been a strong factor in decisions to extend the licences of existing plants in the United States and elsewhere, and they are providing impetus for renewed consideration of new nuclear construction.

Clearly, however, not every country shares the view that improved economics and safety performance warrant a revival of nuclear power. For example, here in Western Europe, four countries — Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden — currently have nuclear phase-out policies in place; and a number of others, including Austria, Denmark and Ireland, have stated policies against nuclear power. This divergence of opinion is to be expected; each country and region faces a different set of variables when choosing its energy strategy, and energy decisions cannot be made on a "one-size-fits-all" basis.

New nuclear power plants remain the most attractive in countries and regions where energy demand growth is rapid, alternative resources are scarce, energy supply security is a priority, and nuclear power is important for reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Shaping the Future: Critical Issues

Overall, the current picture remains mixed, and projections for the future of nuclear power vary widely depending on what assumptions are made. In my view, the primary value of these projections is that they highlight the factors that will influence the future of nuclear power. I would like to examine a few such issues.

Carbon Emissions and the Growth in Demand
The first issue is the degree to which global attention remains focused on limiting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the risk of climate change. With the projected growth in energy demand I have already mentioned, the degree to which fossil fuels are tapped to meet this demand could have a major negative environmental impact.

Nuclear power emits virtually no greenhouse gases. The complete nuclear power chain, from uranium mining to waste disposal, and including reactor and facility construction, emits only 2–6 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour. This is about the same as wind and solar power, and one to two orders of magnitude below coal, oil and even natural gas. Worldwide, if the existing nuclear power plants were shut down and replaced with a mix of non-nuclear sources proportionate to what now exists, the result would be an increase of 600 million tonnes of carbon per year. That is approximately twice the total amount that we estimate will be avoided by the Kyoto Protocol in 2010.

Nuclear should not be viewed as being in competition with "renewable" sources of energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal plants. In fact, nuclear energy is not in competition, per se, with any technology. But with the reduction of carbon emissions becoming a top priority, both nuclear and these renewable sources could have much larger roles to play. The problem is that no "renewable" source has been demonstrated to have the capacity to provide the "baseload" amounts of power needed to replace large fossil fuel plants. Wind power, for example, may be an excellent choice for sparsely populated rural economies, particularly if they lack modern electrical infrastructure; on the other hand, it seems unlikely that wind power will be able to support the electricity needs of tomorrow´s mega-cities.

Security of Supply
A second factor is the current emphasis for many countries on ensuring the security of energy supply. The January 2004 Green Paper on Europe´s supply security estimated that business-as-usual would increase dependency on imported energy from its current 50% to about 70% in 2030. A similar concern drove nuclear power investment in Europe and North America during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Large uranium resources in a given country or region are not a necessary pre-condition for nuclear energy security, given the diverse global roster of stable uranium producers, and the small storage space required for a long term nuclear fuel supply.

Public Perceptions and Misconceptions: Shaping National Choices
A third factor concerns the influence that public perceptions — including perceptions of risk — have on a country´s energy choices. Nuclear energy has long been marked by feelings of unease and concerns about safety and waste. Nuclear power was dealt a heavy blow by the tragedy of the 1986 Chernobyl accident (a blow from which the reputation of the nuclear industry has never fully recovered). Little distinction has been made, in the media or in public understanding, between the design characteristics of the Chernobyl reactor and the hundreds of other reactors in operation around the world — nor have we properly publicized the array of measures put in place since Chernobyl to offset the possibility of another severe nuclear accident.

Performance in Addressing Key Concerns: Safety, Waste Disposal and Security
An extremely important factor — and one over which the nuclear community has some degree of control — is the ongoing performance of the nuclear industry in addressing key concerns related to nuclear power: namely, safety, waste disposal and, more recently, security.

Nuclear Safety
As I have already mentioned, the development of strong international nuclear safety networks over the past two decades has paid off, and I feel confident in saying that nuclear safety has significantly improved. But we should not rest on our laurels. As nuclear power technology continues to spread to new countries, as new reactor designs are developed and put to use, and as the licences of existing plants are extended, it is essential that existing safety standards, operational practices and regulatory oversight are adapted — and in some cases strengthened — to ensure acceptable levels of safety into the future.

Management and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel
In terms of actual implementation, the management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel remains a challenge for the nuclear power industry. When the actual amount of spent nuclear fuel produced globally every year — 12 000 tonnes — is contrasted with the 25 billion tonnes of carbon waste released directly into the atmosphere every year from fossil fuels, the amount of nuclear waste seems relatively small. In addition, most technological hurdles to spent fuel disposal or reprocessing have already been solved. But public opinion will likely remain skeptical — and nuclear waste disposal will likely remain controversial — until the first geological repositories are operational and the disposal technologies fully demonstrated.

In this regard, the greatest progress on deep geological disposal has been made in Finland, Sweden and the USA. Finland´s Government and Parliament have approved a decision "in principle" to build a final repository for spent fuel near Olkiluoto. Construction should start in 2011 and operation in 2020. Sweden has begun detailed geological investigations at two candidate sites, and hopes to make a final site proposal by about 2007. In the US, the President and Congress in 2002 approved proceeding with the disposal site at Yucca Mountain, where operations are planned to begin by about 2012.

For some time, I have been advocating the consideration of multinational approaches to spent fuel management and disposal. More than 50 countries have spent nuclear fuel, including fuel from research reactors, stored in temporary sites, awaiting disposal or reprocessing. Not all countries have the right geology to store waste underground and, for many countries with small nuclear programmes, the costs of such a facility would be prohibitive.

Nuclear Security
Nuclear security has also gained importance in recent years. The September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States naturally led to the re-evaluation of security in every industrial sector, including nuclear power. Both national and international nuclear security activities have greatly expanded in scope and volume; in the past two years, we in the IAEA have worked on every continent to help countries better control their nuclear material and radiological sources, protect their nuclear facilities and strengthen border controls. Here, too, the international community is making good progress; while much remains to be done, nuclear installations around the world have strengthened security forces, added protective barriers, and taken other measures commensurate with current security risks and vulnerabilities.

Technological and Policy Innovation
Last but by no means least, the future contribution of nuclear power will be greatly impacted by innovation — the development of new reactor and fuel cycle technologies. To be successful, these innovative technologies should address concerns related to nuclear safety, proliferation and waste generation — and must be able to generate electricity at competitive prices. From a technical standpoint, this implies a greater reliance on passive safety features, enhanced control of nuclear materials through new fuel configurations, and design features that allow reduced construction times and lower operating costs. And the innovation must be more than purely technical: policy approaches must be put in place that enable reliable construction schedules, licensing review procedures, and other factors affecting cost and consumer confidence.

As I have already said, when considering energy options, a "one-size-fits-all" approach is not feasible. For example, during a recent trip to India I noted that, of the nine Indian nuclear power plants currently under construction, seven fall within the Agency’s definition of small and medium-sized reactors. Four are "small" (less than 300 megawatts), and three are "medium-sized" (between 300 and 700 megawatts).

Small and medium-sized reactors 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. They are of particular interest to many of our developing country Member States, and have thus been a consistent focus of Agency work.

Several projects around the world are moving towards implementation. The Russian Federation already has a licensed design available for construction: the KLT-40, a 60 megawatt reactor design that can be floated and transported by barge, takes advantage of Russian experience with nuclear powered ice-breakers and submarines, and can also be used for district heating. The Republic of Korea has decided to construct by 2008 a one-fifth-scale demonstration plant of its 330 megawatt SMART pressurized water reactor, which will also include a demonstration desalination facility. And South Africa recently approved initial funding for developing a demonstration unit of the 168 megawatt gas cooled Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), due to be commissioned around 2010.

IAEA Energy Assessments and Technology Transfer

One of the IAEA´s lesser known contributions to energy development is our effort to build our Member States capacities for national energy analysis and energy planning. The Agency helps developing countries – and economies in transition – to build their energy planning capabilities with respect to all three aspects of sustainable development – economic, environmental and social. We develop and transfer planning models tailored to their special circumstances. We transfer the latest data on technologies, resources and economics. We train local experts. We help with the analysis of national options for meeting energy demands. And we help to establish the continuing local planning expertise. IAEA energy planning tools are now used in more than 100 countries around the world.

Our energy assessment models treat all energy supply options equally. Each country or region faces a different array of resources, alternatives and priorities when choosing its energy strategy. For some rural poor, the best promise may be that offered by off-grid renewables. But there is also a persistent migration around the world to cities, and for the urban poor and the needs of growing mega-cities the energy mix needs to include large centralized power generation to match large centralized power demand.


While it is difficult to predict with any confidence what the 21st century holds for nuclear power, the factors that will shape its future are relatively evident. It is my hope that, during this conference, we can consider how each of these factors can be addressed, to ensure that nuclear energy remains a viable source of safe, secure and environmentally benign energy.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019


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