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Nuclear Power - Prospects for Revival

Vienna, Austria

The IAEA and the Argonne National Laboratory have a long tradition of collaboration. Staff from Argonne have come to work in the Agency and many experts from Argonne have contributed to our programmes - in the areas of reactor systems development and research reactor fuel performance, to name just two. The IAEA has also benefited greatly from Argonne's strengths in education and training. There have been joint training courses in fields such as nuclear safety, energy planning and environmental monitoring. I sincerely welcome this opportunity on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of one of the world's leading centres for nuclear research to bring you the congratulations and thanks of the IAEA.

The subject of my talk is "Nuclear Power - Prospects for Revival". This audience is so well versed in the subject that I propose to deal first somewhat summarily with the main familiar factors, e.g. nuclear power's economic competitiveness and environmental advantages, on the one hand, and perceptions about risk of accidents, of waste disposal and proliferation on the other. I intend thereafter to focus on a few rather specific issues, which I believe are also of relevance for a nuclear revival, but which are not at the centre of the public debate.

The Case for a Revival of Nuclear Power

First, then, briefly on some of the general considerations. The arguments for a revival of nuclear power are simple. If the developing world is to achieve standards of living comparable to the levels which are common in industrialized countries, then there will need inter alia to be massive increases in energy use. Fossil fuels account for 75% of present total energy use and an increased use of fossil fuels is the easiest way in which developing countries can increase their energy use. This is the way they are now moving along. However, if we are to limit the burden of energy use on the biosphere - in particular the emission of CO2 - we need a different global balance in the energy mix than the one which is now so heavily dominated by coal, oil and gas. Nuclear energy has proved that it can be a very substantial environmentally benign source of electricity and heat and that it can be produced at a cost that is roughly equal to that of coal-generated power. Indeed, as we know, without the contribution of nuclear power over the last decades, the environmental problems, including the CO2 problem, would be even greater than they are today.

Decision makers are probably aware of these points. But there is an apparent lack of will to draw one conclusion, namely that leadership is needed to bring about a revival of the nuclear power option. The 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development and the Conferences of the Parties to the Climate Convention in Berlin in 1995 and in Geneva in 1996 were virtually silent on nuclear power. These Conferences did not give guidance as to how CO2 and other greenhouse gases are to be reduced - only that it should occur. Meanwhile the reality is going in the opposite direction: CO2 emissions are increasing. Why is it that with the tremendous governmental and public attention to the risk of global warming and talk - for instance, about taxes on CO2 emissions - the international governmental conferences do not zero in on nuclear power as an important remedy? I think the answer is simple. In many countries some votes can be lost but few can be gained by an explicit pro-nuclear stand. In these circumstances pro-nuclear governments and politicians prefer to remain silent on the matter, hoping that the intellectual and emotional climate will change before the global climate changes ...

But what about international, non-political, professional bodies? The scientific body set up by the WMO and UNEP to examine the risk of climate change and possible response action to restrain greenhouse gas emissions is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC. This Panel of climatologists has been progressively affirmative in its prediction that climate change will occur if present trends in greenhouse gas emissions continue. When it comes to discuss possible responses, however, it prefers to treat all as equally hypothetical, whether they are highly speculative or rely on proven technologies.

Let me be specific. The IPCC discusses the separation of CO2 from flue gases and piping it into mines or saline aquifers or injecting it at 3000 meters depth in the ocean - an almost science fiction like approach - as if these were solutions on par with technically established conventional solutions, like switching from coal and oil to gas - which gives less CO2 per energy unit or building nuclear power plants - which do not emit CO2. Again, the IPCC discusses solar power and biomass use as if these sources were options equal to nuclear power, when the reality is that nuclear power, as I mentioned, is roughly on par with coal power as regards cost, while photovoltaic cells and biomass generation of electricity are for the foreseeable future very far from competitive. The Panel thus compares technically mature and available options for greenhouse gas abatement with hypothetical or speculative solutions. It notes, however, that - I quote - "nuclear energy could replace baseload fossil fuel electricity generation if generally acceptable responses can be found to concerns such as reactor safety, radioactive waste transport and disposal, and nuclear proliferation."

This evaluation deserves some comment. It would be far from me to disagree with the view that "concerns" - I take it by the public - relating to reactor safety, waste disposal and proliferation are obstacles to an expansion of nuclear power. However, I think it must be noted that these are political-psychological obstacles - not problems to which adequate technical solutions are still missing. Rather than summarily writing off nuclear power because of "concerns", a serious scientific discussion of the nuclear option should examine the substance of the safety issue, the waste disposal issue and the proliferation issue. If these substantive issues - upon unbiased analysis - are found not to be very serious, then the conclusion should be that the concerns ought to be dispelled through more information to allow the option to be used. As you all know, the risks to which these concerns relate will not be found to be zero, but very small. Let me make brief comments on them.

First, the risk of proliferation is real but it is doubtful that it would increase more than marginally if nuclear power expanded. One hundred and eighty non-nuclear-weapon States have adhered to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which was extended for an indefinite time last year. Moreover, today, nuclear weapons are being dismantled by nuclear-weapon States and we can, for the first time, begin to think of their total abolition some time in the future. Second, nuclear safety, is becoming a universal culture - with conventions, standards and shop floor awareness that should ensure good practices worldwide. We have learnt a lot since Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. There are currently 430 nuclear power plants in operation with an average lifetime approaching 20 years - almost 8000 years of operating experience from which we have learned. Thirdly, we are now able to show in practice, not just in theory, that radioactive wastes can be managed for the longer term - the main problem we see is the essentially political-psychological issue of site acceptance.

In saying that we have answers to these three main issues I am not suggesting, of course, that there is nothing more to be done on them - but the issues are for the most part well defined and respectable answers exist. Steps are being taken to further reduce the risk of proliferation - in the IAEA - by strengthening the system for verifying nuclear non-proliferation commitments; agreements are being concluded to provide peer review of national safety practices and to improve the system for compensation in the event of nuclear accidents; and practical systems are in place for providing assistance in upgrading safety.

I shall soon comment in greater detail on the current negotiations to strengthen international safeguards and on the debate about sustainable energy policies. At this point I would observe that the radical transformations of the international scene which have accompanied the end of the Cold War have had some significant impact on the issues we discuss. The division of the world into two mightily armed opposing camps concentrated attention on the management of that conflict. In that context preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to further countries was seen as vital to avoid a further complication in the global strategic situation. Energy issues, too, were often seen in strategic terms - energy security and diversity of supply becoming as important, if not more so in many cases, as consideration of economy and environment. With the passing of the Cold War other issues, especially those clustered around the idea of sustainable development, have surfaced. Instead of containment we now can look to disarmament; where secrecy once reigned, we now talk of transparency; where economic development was once a supreme military consideration, we now talk of sustainable development; and when once we focused on survival for today we are now asked to think of future generations and the legacy we might leave, for example, through global warming.

* * *

One basic issue that often influences views on nuclear power and the consequences of nuclear accidents is the assessment of radiation risk.

Understanding Radiation Risk

Radiation risk is not a new issue, but one ripe for review. If one could attain a better public understanding of radiation risk, perhaps an important barrier might be removed to the acceptance of nuclear applications, including nuclear power.

There is solid knowledge about the health hazard caused by exposure to high levels of radiation. Exposed persons show acute clinical effects and the severity of the effect is directly related to the radiation dose. In general, however, the doses at which statistical links can be demonstrated in human populations are ten to a hundred times greater than the doses from which we now endeavour to protect people. The question that is being asked increasingly often is whether there is in reality any increased risk associated with very small increases of radiation doses above the normal natural background levels. Is the use of a linear, no-threshold model to extrapolate the risks of low dose exposure from the higher-dose observations appropriate? Or does it lead us to take unnecessary but often expensive protection measures?

Neither clinical observation nor epidemiological studies of exposed populations are currently able to answer the question of the effect, if any, of low doses of radiation. There is a need to look further into the biological mechanisms of cancer induction and attempt to better understand the role of radiation damage in this process. In the meantime, however, it is clearly prudent to assume that small increases can cause harm. This, as we know, is the position adopted by the UN organization that assesses radiation effects, UNSCEAR, and followed by the major international body on radiation protection, the ICRP. In its linear, no-threshold embodiment this attitude is also the basis for the system of radiation protection which underlies the recent international Basic Safety Standards sponsored inter alia by the Agency.

However, while professionals in radiation protection understand that we are dealing with a hypothesis justified by prudence, this awareness is lost by the public and to a large extent by the politicians who will focus on the calculated but presumed risk and tend to disregard the low level and hypothetical nature of that risk. We must note that this focus sometimes has damaging side-effects: the causing of stress and anxiety in people who have received low doses and see the risk as real, the channelling of resources to the prevention of very low doses rather than to other, perhaps much more significant safety areas, and the opposition to the use of many technologies which rely on radiation - including nuclear power and food irradiation.

We certainly hope that scientific advances will eventually convincingly tell us what the facts about low-level radiation really are. However, until then we need to examine carefully how we formulate our positions regarding low doses of radiation. Although it should be recognized that the linear no-threshold hypothesis has merit as a basis for precautionary action, it should not lead us to absurdly expensive measures. There is further no doubt that applying it as a predictive formula has given rise to misperceptions of the hazards of low level radiation. We should therefore re-examine what measures we feel prompted to take as a result of application of the hypothesis and the manner in which it is translated into public information and into regulations. If we were successful in explaining the appropriate use of the hypothesis, we might perhaps also bring about more reasonable public perceptions about the risks of nuclear power and of consequences of accidents.

In November 1997 the Agency and the WHO are is co-sponsoring a conference in Seville, Spain, on the topic of low level ionizing radiation - biological effects and regulatory control. It is one in a series of meetings directed at improved understanding of radiation risk. Two years ago in Paris a conference was held on Radiation and Society and this year a major meeting was convened to provide a better understanding of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. We hope these meetings will advance the conceptual thinking needed and thus help to de-demonize the nuclear option.

The Military Legacy: Weapon Test Sites, Waste and Safety

A second issue I would like to discuss is whether nuclear disarmament will reduce many people's reservations about nuclear power and thus remove some obstacles to a nuclear power revival. There is no doubt that the large military nuclear activities and problems, e.g. regarding lost weapons, have had an impact on public attitudes. However, as I mentioned earlier, a number of important changes are occurring in this sphere. Will these impact on peoples' attitudes? Let me discuss some of them. A complete ending of all nuclear weapons testing - demanded by broad public opinions - now seems in sight and I can report to you that the IAEA has become increasingly engaged in assessing whether there are any significant hazardous effects remaining after the tests.

It is not surprising that countries which are now independent and which have in their territory former nuclear weapon test sites, ask for an independent audit of the possible remaining radioactivity and for advice on any residual health hazards. Such IAEA assessments have been performed in the last few years in Kazakstan in relation to the Semipalatinsk site, and in the Marshall Islands in relation to the Bikini Atoll.

In the case of the Semipalatinsk test site the IAEA assessed the consequences of over forty years of nuclear weapon testing to determine the current hazards of living in the area. Of particular concern were the residues of atmospheric and surface tests carried out before 1962. Some of these tests had been unsuccessful and resulted in the dispersion of plutonium rather than a nuclear explosion. The review concluded that there is no need for concern among those living in the settlements around the test sites - but recommended measures to ensure restriction of access to areas with high dose rate, and further systematic studies on plutonium levels and radionuclides in drinking water resources.

In the case of the Marshall Islands, the request to the Agency was on the advisability of a return to the Bikini Atoll of the Bikini people. The Agency established an Advisory Group of experts drawn from a range of countries to review earlier findings about the radiological situation at the Atoll and to provide practical guidance in the event that it was decided to resettle it. The finding was that if certain precautions were taken, namely reducing caesium uptake by use of potassium fertilizer and covering the surface of the main village area with uncontaminated soil, settlers would be exposed to radiation levels similar to naturally occurring background levels - albeit on the high side of the range. The decision actually to resettle the Atoll of course remains with the people of the Marshall Islands.

A study currently underway under Agency auspices in French Polynesia is different in that the invitation to make it was requested by the country that conducted the tests - France. It is also receiving support in terms of data and funding from the Government of France. In these circumstances, it was all the more important for the IAEA to form a truly international scientific group under the leadership of former NRC Commissioner, Gail de Planque, to undertake the study. It will conclude its work by the end of next year. It will be one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, addressing not only the current radiological situation but reviewing also the long term potential for the release of radionuclides into the environment - an exercise involving assessment of the geological stability of the underground test sites and of the potential pathways and impacts in the event of leaks. Perhaps this openness to external scrutiny by France will be followed by others? With the apparent end to the age of nuclear weapons testing, it seems appropriate to me that an impartial global organization is entrusted with the task of examining to what extent any hazards still remain.

There are other consequences of the military use of nuclear energy which give the public cause for concern. As is now clear, the standards of waste management at many military installations have been much lower than those demanded of civil facilities. You are familiar with the situation in the United States. In Russia there are considerable problems related to the disposal of the nuclear components of surplus and obsolete submarines. Some nuclear waste has even been disposed of at sea in breach of widely held standards. The Agency is conducting studies, jointly with some countries directly interested, into the impacts of past disposal of military wastes in the Kara and Barents Seas, and into the Sea of Japan. I am glad to tell you that the findings were so far not alarming.

The cases which I have cited indicating a certain openness about past military nuclear activities do not, of course, suggest any general abandonment of secrecy in this area. Security concerns, notably about the risk of proliferation, still keep most military nuclear facilities beyond the reach of international audit. This seemed to be the reasoning behind confining the recently concluded safety convention to civil nuclear power plants. The same issue has arisen in the current negotiations in Vienna of a convention on the safe management and disposal of radioactive waste. Whatever the outcome of those particular negotiations, the public will demand the same health and environmental assurances concerning a facility regardless of whether it is civil or military and regardless of the origin of waste. And the nuclear image will suffer when high standards are not demanded or followed in the military sphere. A beginning has been made to satisfy the public's concerns. However, a complete breaking of the mental link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons can be expected only when we feel that the nuclear weapons era is over.

Verification of Disarmament

Complete elimination of nuclear weapons is evidently still a distant goal, but so profound is the change in the global political climate that we have begun to think of this situation. Today we are pleased to note that agreements between the super-powers have provided a framework for dismantling of vast numbers of strategic nuclear weapons and that dismantling nuclear weapons is taking place at high pace. Future agreements will hopefully continue this process and broaden it to encompass other nuclear-weapon States. Two questions that arise are: first, how is this process of disarmament to be verified? Second, what will be done with the materials and facilities no longer in military use? I shall deal first with the verification of disarmament.

The current nuclear disarmament process rests on bilateral verification arrangements but both sides have indicated that they would invite international verification. More than two years ago the US requested the IAEA to apply safeguards to a quantity of former military nuclear material. The interest of both the US and Russia in having international verification of such material was confirmed in April this year at the Moscow Summit on Nuclear Safety and Security. A further step was taken in a trilateral meeting between the Russian Minister for Atomic Energy, Viktor Mikhailov, the US Secretary for Energy, Hazel O'Leary and myself during the IAEA's annual General Conference this last September. At that meeting, steps were agreed for considering the technical, legal and financial aspects of verification by the IAEA of the nuclear material released by disarmament measures.

Such verification is highly desirable. It could - and should - provide assurance that irrevocable commitments made to dismantle weapons are respected and that none of the weapons plutonium or enriched uranium is going back to the military sector. Such verification would be different from safeguards presently performed under the so-called voluntary offers made by nuclear-weapon States under the NPT. Under those offers material submitted to safeguards can be withdrawn. An arrangement of that kind would not be meaningful for nuclear material resulting from the dismantling of weapons.

Verification of nuclear material from dismantled weapons may be seen as an encouraging first step on a long road to a nuclear-weapon-free world. As was argued in the recently published report of the so-called Canberra Commission - an Australian initiative involving a wide range of international experts - the road to, and the final achievement of, a nuclear-weapon-free world will require a high degree of confidence in international verification of the absence of and non acquisition of nuclear weapons.

This leads to my next point. The IAEA is the logical organization to provide future verification services to assure non-military use of nuclear materials. It is a statutory function of the Agency and one in which we already have great experience. However, we will require new tools and approaches well in time for the new measures. The work now envisaged in relation to material being released from military use is the necessary starting point for developing these approaches.

While there has been much welcome progress and grounds for optimism in the area of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, there are some reasons for caution over the next steps. It would be a big step if the apparent present de facto moratorium by the declared nuclear-weapon States on the production of new nuclear material for weapons could be extended and formalized to become a treaty commitment by all States to stop such production. However, I have to note that at the moment multilateral talks on such a treaty have not begun. There are also regions in which some States - Israel, India and Pakistan - are not ready to make non-proliferation commitments, because they do not see the degree of detente they consider necessary. It is probable that the current type of comprehensive safeguards would not suffice in these regions. A combination of bilateral and multilateral verification might be needed.

Thus, future international verification poses new technical, conceptual, legal and resource issues. For instance, the shape and quality of the nuclear material from dismantled weapons are considered sensitive. How is the verification to be arranged if inspectors cannot check the quality? Such technical questions are among the issues to be examined in the framework of trilateral discussions now starting between the Agency, Russia and the US. Among other questions to be considered is that of the scope of the verification. Is it meaningful to seek a reliable account of every kilo of plutonium declared transferred from the military sector, when a State is known still to have tons of Pu not transferred? If not, what is the appropriate scope and level of ambition of the verification? And if it were concluded that a somewhat more limited verification should be performed in order to reduce cost, what would be the reaction of other States which are obliged to have rigorous safeguards on Pu?

Fuel Cycles of the future: Management of PU and HEU

Let me now turn to another area which is of significance to the profile of nuclear power and in which Argonne has played a unique role: that of developing advanced fuel cycle technologies - keeping in mind the issues of economy, safety and assurance against misuse. This last aspect - assurance against misuse - was the major theme of the famous International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation - INFCE - conducted in the late 1970s. I need only cite the term "plutonium economy" to show that the matter remains of interest. While the Agency is confident that it can apply safeguards adequately to current and planned nuclear fuel cycles it is also true that some technologies require more safeguards work than others. Fortunately this point is being increasingly understood and the Agency is now frequently consulted at an early stage of the design of nuclear installations so that safeguards requirements can be taken into account.

The development of lower enriched fuels which might replace HEU as the preferred fuel for reactors for research and isotope production has been one practical challenge of the last decade. We learnt last year that Iraq had plans to use the highly enriched research reactor fuel under safeguards for a crash weapons programme. Evidently if the fuel had been low enriched, the temptation would not have existed.

The concern about risks in using plutonium have led countries employing plutonium in their fuel cycle to work on ways in which they could at least enhance the transparency of that use. How much can be done beyond comprehensive safeguards is yet unclear.

Safeguards may be said to constitute a confidence-creating openness to neighbours and to the world through verification performance by outsiders - the IAEA. Such openness can also be achieved directly through the use of multinational fuel cycle facilities, multinational fuel cycles and bilateral co-operation in research and development. There are well known examples in Eurodiff and Urenco. Such approaches could be further developed in the future, and so could the idea of regional facilities. In sensitive areas like the Middle East or East Asia this could offer sensible contributions to security and perhaps also to economy and safety.

An issue of great topicality is what to do with the quantities of HEU and plutonium which are becoming available from dismantled weapons. How best to use these materials in ways that would eliminate the possibility of their re-use in weapons? The options have been well canvassed and there will certainly be some turning of swords into ploughshares - or, in more modern parlance, some turning of Megatons into Megawatts. As you know, the US is committed to blend down some 600 tons of HEU to the necessary level. For plutonium several approaches are being considered. For plutonium from dismantled weapons, the inter-governmental discussion of options is now taking place in the context of the declaration of the Moscow Summit - most recently just last week at a conference hosted by France and including IAEA participation. The Agency for its part is to host a major symposium in June 1997 to assess the different fuel cycle strategies with particular reference to the production, use and disposal of plutonium.

The Immediate Task: Strengthening International Verification

Let me now return to an issue which is of immediate interest for confidence that nuclear energy is used for exclusively peaceful purposes: the strengthening of the safeguards system of the IAEA. Since the discovery of Iraq's clandestine nuclear programme the IAEA has been engaged in an effort to achieve this. The system as it was operated since the early 1970's focussed on assurance that States are not diverting nuclear material in declared installations from civil to military use. By the 1990 NPT Review Conference there were calls for some rethinking on the adequacy of this approach. With the Iraq affair came the political will to ensure that the system could also provide assurance that States do not have any non-declared nuclear activities in contravention of their non-proliferation commitments.

A first part of the IAEA programme for the strengthening of safeguards is now being implemented and for the most part this is proving to be without major difficulty. One of the key measures being employed is the use of analysis of environmental samples to shed light on past nuclear activities so as to confirm - or not to confirm - the consistency between the activities reported by the State and the evidence so obtained. It was indeed the results of sample analysis that led to questions being raised about the quantity of plutonium produced in the DPRK.

The second part of the effort to strengthen safeguards is based on proposals expanding the legal basis under which safeguards are conducted. It is now being discussed by a Committee of the Agency's Board of Governors - the aim is greater access to facilities by inspectors, access to more information on nuclear activities and use of modern techniques. While all agree in principle to the effort of strengthening of safeguards, the devil sits in the details. Despite extensive trials of the new approaches which suggested that they should not be unduly burdensome, the current negotiations have to deal with several concerns: one is confidentiality - that is the extent to which the Agency can be relied on to protect the confidentiality of information provided to it under safeguards. Another is so-called universality - the extent to which States which have not accepted comprehensive safeguards - notably the P-5 and India, Pakistan and Israel - should accept the additional obligations now discussed. Success in the present efforts will create greater confidence - albeit not 100% - that States stay away from the nuclear weapons which they have renounced. Such success will also raise hopes that a high degree of effectiveness could be attained in the verification of nuclear disarmament. This is not to profess belief in the prospect of any early elimination of nuclear weapons. My personal view is that such elimination will require much more advanced international institutions than we now have in the UN System.

I conclude: the revival of the nuclear power option is needed to help an energy hungry world to get electricity and heat without endangering environment and climate. The cost of the nuclear option is such that it will not cause us to regret using it, even if global warming were to turn out not to be a risk. Nuclear power is a "no-regret" solution. However, many factors affect the acceptability of this option. I have tried to touch today on some of these factors that, though important, are not so much in the limelight.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018

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