Opportunities and Challenges for World Nuclear Industry in 21st Century

Yury Sokolov, IAEA Deputy Director General, Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy

Vienna, Austria

My presentation today is about opportunities and challenges for the nuclear industry in the 21 century. Challenges and opportunities are polarities, and as opposite poles of the magnet they do not exist separately. And moreover an opportunity for some can be a challenge for others, or a challenge today can become an opportunity tomorrow. All these complexities are fully applicable to the nuclear industry and its future.

Current world challenges such as energy demand, climate change, and energy security are opportunities for the nuclear industry. The IEA projects that the energy consumption will grow about 50% by 2030 with electricity use doubling globally and tripling in developing countries. The growth will be mainly based on the growing use of fossil fuels leading the world to a future which the Secretary General of the IEA described as dirty, expensive and unstable. Another concern is energy security which is already a primary challenge for many countries. Competition for natural resources leads to rising prices for fossil fuel. As the IAEA DG Dr. ElBaradei said at the G-8 Summit, "if we ignore insecurities of others, they eventually become our own".

Increase in fossil fuel use is a leading concern regarding the impact of human activities on climate change. The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Mr. Yvo de Boer, said he has never seen a credible scenario for reducing emissions that did not include nuclear energy.

All these world challenges have tended to increase the opportunities for the nuclear power and strengthen the achievements in NP development, including its safe operation.

The way in which Nuclear Power has developed in Korea is a clear demonstration of how the challenges can become opportunities. After 30 years of operation in Korea, 20 units of operating NPPs are maintained at a high level of performance and safety, with an average capacity factor of more then 90% compared to the global average of 77.8 percent.

But before speaking about the challenges and their solutions we have to agree about the principles under which nuclear power has to be developed and used. Clearly demonstrating compliance with such principles is of special concern to the countries introducing nuclear power programs.

Many projections forecast significant growth in nuclear power both in countries currently using it and in countries considering its use for the first time. The 2007 IAEA projections indicate that nuclear electricity generation may grow by 15 to 45% by 2020 and by 25 to 95% by 2030. The number of nuclear power reactors is predicted to increase by up to 60% and associated fuel cycle facilities by up to 45% by 2030.

For the global nuclear power to be sustainable and to contribute to the world´s energy supply mix in the long term, it must respond to the challenges of further development. Among these challenges are the availability of uranium resources, management of waste, safety, public acceptance, aging of the facilities and workforce, complex infrastructure, and non-proliferation.

In my presentation I will focus on those challenges that are marked with the red colour.

Uranium Resources

My conclusion (and the Red Book confirms it) is that there are enough resources, 16-22 Mt. Increased exploration is needed. I would say even more, we have too much uranium. I cannot imagine that we will continue to use uranium as we do now until we have accumulated16Mt of SF. Closing the fuel cycle will resolve the issue of availability of resources and in addition can help decrease the radiotoxicity of the nuclear waste. Technical solutions for LL and ILW exist. And just last week a remarkable announcement was made, an application for the licensing of Yucca Mountain was sent to the NRC.

Public perception of nuclear power is changing. This is partly due to the successful operation of nuclear energy over the last 20 years and partly to the perception that nuclear energy can make a valuable contribution to reducing global warming. In some countries public perception may be heavily influenced by the lack of practical and affordable alternatives as well as observations that nuclear power has made valuable contributions to raising living standards in countries like the Republic of Korea and India.

I would stress that even though I have a positive tone in my coverage of this issue, it remains a challenge, and our joint efforts are needed to make this positive tone a reality.

Rising expectations for nuclear power have focused attention on the human resource and industrial capabilities needed to meet these expectations.

The nuclear facilities and workforce are aging as well as a decline in research potential has taken place as shown on this slide. The total number of nuclear power plants in operation worldwide is estimated to employ more than 250 000 people. Over one million people are estimated to have been engaged in supporting the nuclear industry worldwide in 2007. For its sustainable development the nuclear industry must address shortages of experienced personnel, the loss of knowledge and research potential due to retirement in countries with established nuclear programs, as well as the building of capabilities in countries starting nuclear program.

The complexity of nuclear technology requires a highly educated and specifically trained workforce. In some countries, the government has provided incentives to develop academic programs and recruit students to nuclear fields. The Agency is also active in this area.

With the support of the Agency several networks (Asian Network on Education in NT, European Nuclear Engineering Network, WNU, etc) have been established for information sharing and attraction of young generation to nuclear activity.

Questions have been raised about whether there is available nuclear industrial capacity to meet the near term demand if high growth projections for nuclear power come true. The nuclear industry in the 1980s was able to support construction of more than two hundred nuclear power plants, which is more then the high projection now foresees, and the world´s industrial capacity was a lot smaller then. Manufacturing capability and capacity will need to be rebuilt to service the expected growth in new nuclear power plants. This may already be happening

Needs of Developing Countries

According to IAEA data, 47 countries have expressed an interest in the introduction of nuclear power: 16 are from the Asia/Pacific region (from the Middle East to the Pacific), 15 are from Africa, 10 from Europe and 6 from Latin America. Expansion of existing nuclear programmes is currently largely centred in Asia, where the greatest expansion in energy production is also expected. Many countries in Europe and North America also expect to expand their nuclear programmes, though new construction starts remain to be seen.

Regional cooperation for the introduction of new nuclear power plants is also being planned. The Baltic States are planning a regional project at the Ignalina site in Lithuania. The Gulf Cooperation Council states are considering the possibility of a regional approach to the introduction of a nuclear programme

International support for States introducing nuclear power is important to ensure they are making informed decisions on the role of nuclear power in their energy mixes. The IAEA helps countries prepare for the introduction or expansion of nuclear power by 1) helping them ensure that nuclear energy is used safely, securely and with minimal proliferation risk, and 2) meeting the needs of developing countries to build capacity in terms of human resources, energy analysis, regulatory capabilities and other infrastructure necessary for nuclear power.

The Agency has taken an integrated approach to all the issues that have to be taken into account for the introduction of a nuclear power programme, including in providing guiding documents, forums for sharing information, consultancies and technical meetings and sending multidisciplinary teams to countries requesting assistance with nuclear power infrastructure.

The process also includes specific assistance and review services in the areas of infrastructure readiness, feasibility studies, draft nuclear law, regulatory frameworks and organization, siting issues, human resource development and planning, bid evaluation and technology assessment, owner/operator competence, and safety and security.

Innovations in nuclear technology are necessary to achieve an increase in nuclear energy´s long term contribution to sustainable development. There are a number of international initiatives to ensure and strengthen the future sustainability of nuclear power such as the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) and the Generation IV International Forum (GIF).

The IAEA´s project, INPRO, assembles expertise, facilitates information exchange and catalyzes coordinated research among technology holders and technology users including potential users to ensure that new designs meet the needs of all countries, and especially developing ones.

Improvements in sustainability are considered by INPRO in the context of developments in the areas of safety, economics, proliferation resistance, waste management, environment, resources utilization security and infrastructure. INPRO methodology provides a method for the holistic assessment of innovative nuclear systems.

The expansion of nuclear power will increase the nuclear material in use and may increase the risk of proliferation or terrorism. The need to consider the challenges associated with the expansion of nuclear power has led to a number of international initiatives based on the idea of strengthening multinational control over, and assurance of, the supply of nuclear technology and materials. The IAEA Director General Dr. ElBaradei has proposed as the first step establishment of a mechanism to assure the supply of nuclear fuel. This back-up mechanism in which the IAEA becomes "a guarantor for the supply of fissile materials to civilian nuclear users" could add further confidence by helping to protect against political disruptions.

The DG established a group of experts to review multilateral arrangements relevant to the front-end and back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle as well as the policy, legal, security, economic and technological elements of cooperation. Two factors dominate the assessments made by this group: assurance of non-proliferation and assurance of supply. Five steps were identified, including establishment of a fuel bank, a role for the IAEA as a guarantor of service supply, and further steps toward multilateral control over the sensitive FC technologies.

Practical proposals for the introduction of mechanisms to ensure supply have been offered by Russia, USA, Germany, Japan and an NGO. Specifically, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) offered M$50 for the establishment of a fuel bank.

Russia, Kazakhstan and Armenia have established an International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk to provide access to the benefits of nuclear energy to interested countries in compliance with non-proliferation. An agreement on a fuel bank under the IAEA´s control at Angarsk is also under development.

In addition, the USA launched the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to foster the expansion of nuclear energy while enhancing security and non-proliferation, focusing on reliable fuel services and the closed fuel cycle with technology without separated plutonium. As of February 2008, GNEP has 21 partners, and 3 observing international organizations. The fully developed framework is a complex endeavour to be developed in stages.

In conclusion, nuclear power, by itself, is not a panacea for global energy security. It has the potential to be a significant, reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly energy source that can contribute to providing access to affordable energy services in all interested countries for present and future generations. To realize this potential any use of nuclear energy should be designed to be beneficial, responsible and sustainable, and undertaken with due regard to safety, environmental impact, non-proliferation and social acceptance.

Last update: 13 November 2014