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Nuclear Technology in a Changing World: Have We Reached a Turning Point?

Vienna, Austria

 am honored to be delivering the David J. Rose lecture today. David J. Rose was a nuclear scientist and MIT professor who stood out from the crowd for his insistent emphasis on the social and ethical implications of nuclear energy. Professor Rose believed not just in nuclear energy per se, but in nuclear energy that is safe and secure, to be used in combination with other clean sources of energy. He understood fully the role of energy for improving the lot of our fellow human beings who have been left behind. And while he believed in the constructive role of nuclear energy, he also acknowledged its destructive side, and was a passionate advocate of eliminating all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. Those are ideas I fully believe in and subscribe to, and I am therefore delighted to be giving this lecture to honor his legacy today.

We who live in the Nuclear Age are approaching a crossroads, a moment of truth. On the one hand, the benefits of nuclear energy are needed more than ever. On the other hand, nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism pose the number one threat to our existence. Will this extraordinary technology continue to be harnessed as the servant of development, or will we become the victims of its destructive power?"

Today I will discuss why I believe the stage is set for change, and why the future of nuclear technology will depend, not only on continued technological innovation, but also on vision, leadership and multilateral cooperation.

Growth in Energy Demand

A primary factor driving change is the worldwide growth in energy demand. In the past 35-40 years, global energy consumption has nearly doubled, due to population growth, the need to raise living standards, and increasing dependence on energy intensive technologies. The use of coal has slightly decreased, but consumption of every other major energy source has increased markedly. Electricity use has nearly tripled.

According to the World Energy Outlook just published by the International Energy Agency, these trends - and their consequences - will only 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. If fossil fuels continue to dominate energy use, they will account for close to 85% of this increase. Major oil and gas importers - including the United States, Western Europe, and the expanding economies of China and India - will depend heavily on the reliability of supply, with the constant risk of the impact of economic or geopolitical turmoil on energy prices. And all the while, carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise, escalating the potential for irreversible climate change.

The Global Energy Imbalance

In my view, no discussion of energy is complete without considering the existing global energy imbalance, which is a basic impediment to development and to efforts to eradicate poverty and hunger.

Here in the developed world, the instant and plentiful availability of electricity is taken for granted. Not so in Ghana and Nigeria, where I visited earlier this year. The use of electricity in Ghana - per capita - is only about 300 kilowatt-hours per year. In Nigeria, 70 kilowatt-hours per year. That translates to an average availability of 8 watts for each Nigerian citizen -- roughly 100 times less than the average citizen in the developed world, and about 200 times less than the average here in the US.

Take a moment to visualize what this imbalance means in terms of living standards and access to modern technology. The John and Jane Smiths of the developed world use their allotted slice of energy to light and heat their home, preserve their food, supply their water and recharge their iPods. In addition, there is enough left over to keep their hospitals, shopping malls, factories, government offices and universities providing the services they expect. The Nigerian, by comparison, must make do with an 8-watt light bulb.

And Nigeria is not alone in its electricity scarcity. Approximately 1.6 billion people - one in four of our fellow human beings - lack access to modern energy services. This disparity in energy supply, and the corresponding disparity in standards of living, in turn creates a disparity of opportunity - and gives rise to the insecurity and tensions that plague many regions of the developing world.

Nuclear reactors currently generate electricity for nearly 1 billion people, producing about 16% of the world´s electricity. But nuclear electricity generation is concentrated in developed countries. More than half of the world's reactors are in North America and Western Europe, and fewer than 10% are situated in developing countries - which is nonetheless where this century´s greatest growth in energy demand is projected to occur.

The Emerging Expansion In Nuclear Energy Use

With these scenarios framing the debate, the case for constructing new nuclear power plants is gaining ground in many countries. Nuclear power emits almost 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 two orders of magnitude below coal, oil and even natural gas.

In addition, the availability and comparatively low cost of uranium fuel make nuclear power an attractive option for some countries concerned about energy security. And sustained improvements in nuclear plant availability and safety performance have made operating costs relatively low and stable.

The most ambitious movement towards building new nuclear plants is currently taking place in Asia and Eastern Europe, which together account for 22 of the 24 units now under construction. The Russian Federation intends to double its nuclear generating capacity by 2020. China plans nearly a six-fold expansion in capacity by the same date. And India, with eight plants now under construction, anticipates a ten-fold increase by 2022.

Elsewhere, plans are more modest, but nuclear energy is clearly re-emerging in a way that few would have predicted just a few years ago. When Finland began pouring concrete for Olkiluoto-3 earlier this year, it was the first new nuclear construction in Western Europe since 1991. France plans to begin construction of a European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) in 2007. Here in the US, a number of energy consortia have announced plans to apply for construction and operating licences at specific sites, and hope to begin construction as soon as 2010. Some 'newcomer' developing countries, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, are also moving steadily forward with plans for nuclear power investment. And a host of countries - from Turkey and Bulgaria to Mexico and Argentina - are discussing plans for initiating or expanding their nuclear power programmes.

Nuclear energy is not a panacea. The surge in global energy demand will require continued usage of most, if not all, available energy sources. But with the reduction of carbon emissions becoming a top priority, increasing emphasis will be given to energy conservation and "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. As such, countries are increasingly looking to nuclear as an important part of the future energy mix.

Technological Innovation

The degree to which nuclear power fulfils its potential will be heavily dependent on technological innovation. Current R&D projects on new reactor and fuel cycle technologies are focused on nuclear safety, proliferation, waste generation and economic considerations. This implies a greater reliance on passive safety features, enhanced control of nuclear materials through new fuel types and configurations, and design features that allow shorter construction times and lower operating costs.

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

And here in the US, General Electric Energy applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September for certification of its 1500-megawatt ESBWR design - the "Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor". The NuStart consortium hopes to build the first ESBWR at the Grand Gulf site in Mississippi.

Many countries are collaborating on innovative nuclear R&D for the longer term. 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. With the United States having committed to join just last month, INPRO now includes 24 countries.

The Generation IV International Forum is a consortium of 10 industrialized countries and the European Union focused on exploring the technical and commercial viability of future reactor systems. The Forum has selected six innovative nuclear systems for collaborative R&D.

Major research initiatives (in China, Europe, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the US) are also focused on innovative nuclear systems to produce hydrogen for fuel cells that could be used in transportation.

Energy For Development

At the IAEA, we are putting increasing emphasis on the theme of "energy for development".

For many developing countries, the starting point is a systematic assessment of energy needs. 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, with consideration of economic, environmental and social development implications. We develop and transfer planning models tailored to a country´s particular circumstances. We transfer the latest data on technologies, resources and economics. We train local experts. IAEA energy planning tools are now used in more than 100 countries around the world.

The focus of these services is not on promoting nuclear energy, but on helping a country to assess how it will procure the energy needed to fuel its development goals. Each country or region faces a different array of resources, alternatives and priorities when choosing its energy strategy.

Developing countries that choose the nuclear option can face an array of challenges related to both technology and infrastructure. On the technology side, small and medium-sized reactors are in some cases a more attractive option. They allow a more incremental investment, provide a better match to smaller capacity grids, and are more easily adapted to a broad range of industrial settings and applications - such as district heating and seawater desalination.

But the international nuclear community also needs to become more creative in helping developing countries address the so-called "soft challenges", related to infrastructure, management and human resources. For example, regional approaches may prove useful in addressing some of the issues that have made nuclear energy impractical for developing countries, including: electrical grid capacity, upfront capital costs, infrastructure and workforce needs.

Other Applications of Nuclear Technology

Atomic energy is being used to serve a broad spectrum of human needs. So far, I have limited my discussion to nuclear energy as a source of electrical power. Let me expand the picture.

Over the half century from 1950 to 2000, the world´s population rose from 2.5 billion to 6.1 billion people. The consumption of fossil fuels quadrupled during that period. But energy usage is not the only vector that rose sharply. The demand for grain rose from 650 million tons in 1950 to 1855 million tons at the turn of the century. Water usage also tripled.

The result is that, in many parts of the world, over-farming of cropland and over-pumping of water tables (i.e. using resources faster than they can be replenished) are becoming matters of significant concern. Food and water shortages are already commonplace in many countries. In the decades to come, global competition in terms of "food security" and "water security" may become as serious as "energy security" today.

Let me mention a few of the increasing range of nuclear and isotopic techniques that are being used to address these and other daunting challenges - particularly in the developing world.

For example, in Vietnam, the IAEA has helped local scientists master laboratory techniques to speed up the natural mutation and selection of rice varieties. In recent decades, Vietnamese rice breeders, working with local farmers, have produced rice that is more resistant to drought, greater in yield, and higher in nutritional value. While poverty remains a problem, food security has increased, and in little more than a generation, Vietnam has become one of the world´s top rice producers.

Isotope hydrology is a technique used to map out groundwater resources deep below the earth´s surface, thereby helping countries to manage their water reserves sustainably. For example, in Guelmin - a town on the edge of the Sahara in the south of Morocco - isotope hydrology provided the basis for diverting an untapped freshwater source 80 kilometres away. As a result, a population of 100 000 townspeople, small farmers and shepherds found a solution to their water shortage.

These are just two examples among many. Nuclear technologies are being used worldwide - not only to address issues of energy generation, food production and water management - but also to study child malnutrition, to increase industrial productivity, to eradicate disease-bearing pests, to combat cancer, to clean up environmental hazards, and to solve many other problems of development.

Using Nuclear Technology and Innovative Approaches To Prevent Proliferation

Verification Tools
Advanced technology and innovative approaches have also played an important role in the IAEA´s efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons - including our work to uncover clandestine nuclear programmes. For example, satellite monitoring has helped to detect changes in nuclear and other facilities; and advanced analysis techniques, including 3-D visualization technology, have improved our ability to interpret these satellite images. Laboratory analysis, using advanced nuclear forensic techniques, has helped us to reconstruct the chronology and nature of past nuclear activity, and to verify the origin of the associated nuclear material.

As we look to the future - particularly in the context of an expansion in nuclear power - IAEA safeguards inspectors will continue to need innovative methods of detecting undeclared nuclear facilities and activities. Advanced technologies will be in demand for tracking nuclear material, conducting data analysis in the field, and remote surveillance of sensitive nuclear facilities.

Building Proliferation Resistance Into Future Reactor Systems
A great deal of attention is being given to reducing the proliferation vulnerability associated with various aspects of nuclear technology. I have already mentioned that, in R&D on the reactor systems of the future, efforts are being made to incorporate proliferation resistance into the plant design. Certain designs, for example, would use modular cores that would only need refueling every 30 years, greatly reducing the access to sensitive nuclear material.

Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
I have also been advocating for some time the consideration of multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle, as a way to better control the spread of sensitive nuclear technology. A key component indispensable to the development of nuclear weapons is the acquisition of high enriched uranium or plutonium. It only makes sense, therefore, to tighten controls over activities that involve uranium enrichment and plutonium separation.

A number of countries and organizations are working with the IAEA on what we see as the first step: creating a framework that would assure a supply of nuclear fuel at competitive prices. In so doing, we remove the incentive or justification for additional countries to develop their own fuel cycle capabilities.

Addressing Plutonium Stockpiles
The manner in which to deal with plutonium stocks also remains an open question - whether to burn the plutonium in mixed oxide (or "MOX") fuel to generate electricity, or to mix it with high level radioactive waste for disposal in a vitrified form. One innovative but technologically feasible approach for the longer term would be the use of proliferation-resistant forms of plutonium fuel - for example, forms that would retain the minor actinides present in spent fuel. These fuel forms would make it much harder for the plutonium to be diverted for weapons purposes.

Research Reactor Conversion and Return of HEU Fuel
As one more step to reduce access to sensitive nuclear material, I have been urging countries to minimize the use of high enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian applications. Multiple countries are taking steps to convert their research reactors from using high enriched to low enriched uranium fuel, and to return the HEU to the country of origin. These efforts are receiving strong support from the IAEA, Russia and the United States. Seven such transfers of fresh fuel back to Russia have been made since 2002. We are also continuing to work on arrangements for the repatriation of spent research reactor fuel of Russian origin.

These and other projects are helping to reduce the risks posed by existing nuclear material. But much remains to be done. Of the research reactors currently in operation, 99 still use HEU enriched to 90% or greater. And more than 20 research reactors remain that cannot be converted from using HEU because of the lack of adequate equivalent LEU fuels. The IAEA is supporting the international effort to develop and qualify an appropriate fuel. In the meantime, we are also helping countries to upgrade the physical protection of such facilities.


With this brief overview, I hope you will understand better why I believe that we are at a crossroads. I believe Professor Rose would have agreed with me in saying that technology is neither the source of, nor the solution to, all the world´s ills. It is people - in their roles as government leaders, scientists, university professors and students, and citizens - that determine how a given technology is to be used.

As Adlai Stevenson once said, "Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or to make the deserts bloom. There is no evil in the atom; only in men´s souls."

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Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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