You are here

Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy: Meeting Societal Needs

Vienna Austria

 Mumbai, India
15th Annual Conference of the Indian Nuclear Society (INSAC-2004)

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

I am pleased to be with you today to share a few of my thoughts on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the international "Atoms for Peace" initiative - as well as the "Golden Jubilee" year of India´s own Department of Atomic Energy - and we have seen numerous retrospective evaluations of the progress made over the past five decades. But history is most useful when we consider how to apply its lessons to address current and future challenges, and it is in this context that I would like to discuss a number of issues facing the international nuclear community and the IAEA.

Nuclear Power

Global Growth and Current Status
In the early years of atomic science, the peaceful application of greatest interest and promise was nuclear power - which, according to predictions, would bring "abundant electrical energy in the power starved areas of the world". To date, this goal has not been achieved on the scale originally envisioned. By the early 1970s, nuclear power capacity worldwide was growing at an average rate of 30% per year. Over the next ten years, it continued to secure a steadily larger share of the world electricity market. By 1986, the year of the Chernobyl accident, nuclear power accounted for 16% of global electricity use. From that time forward, that ratio has remained about the same, growing at the same pace as overall electricity use.

Asia as a region holds the strongest current growth market for nuclear power. Twenty-three of the last 28 reactors to be connected to the grid are in the Far East and South Asia - and, of the 27 units now under construction worldwide, 19 are located in Asia. In fact, 9 of the 27, a total of 4460 megawatts, are in India. By contrast, in Western Europe and North America, nuclear construction has been a relatively frozen playing field - the last plant to be completed being Civaux-2 in France in 1999. However, there may be signs of a thaw: construction will start next year on a new 1600 megawatt European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) nuclear plant in Finland, and France announced just last month that it would begin construction in 2007 on a new EPR nuclear plant in Flamanville.

Nuclear Safety Performance and Reliability
Given this limited amount of new construction, much of the increase in nuclear generating capacity over the past decade has been credited to increased availability - 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. A more systematic analysis of risk was used to ensure that changes made were in areas that would bring the greatest safety return. And the IAEA has worked to update its body of safety standards to reflect best industry practices, as well as putting in place legally binding norms in the form of international safety conventions.

India has been an active participant in many of the Agency´s safety activities. For example, senior Indian experts have participated in recent technical meetings related to nuclear power plant operational safety, seismic safety, aging management and life extension — and some of these meetings have been hosted here in India. Indian experts have contributed significant insights to the review and upgrading of the Agency´s safety standards. And India has for many years been sharing detailed technical information about events in nuclear plants through the Incident Reporting System.

Given the ambitious scope of its peaceful nuclear energy activities, India could gain considerable benefit through making use of the variety of Agency peer reviews and safety services. India would of course also be welcomed by the more than 50 countries that are party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

Although the focus of international efforts has been on improving safety, the secondary benefit has been a steady increase in nuclear plant availability and productivity. In 1990, nuclear plants on average were generating electricity 71% of the time. As of 2003, that figure stood at 84% - an improvement in productivity equal to adding more than 34 new 1000 megawatt nuclear plants - 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.

The Mixed Picture: Factors That Will Shape Future Growth
Clearly, however, not every country shares the view that improved economics and safety performance warrant a revival of 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.

Consider Europe as a regional example: it does not face the dual pressures of population growth and the need for economic development that are present in some parts of Asia. In Finland, a majority of the public continues to support nuclear power expansion; in Switzerland last May the electorate, by a two-to-one vote, rejected a phase-out of nuclear power; and Europe receives 30% of its overall electricity from nuclear power. Yet four Western European countries - Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden - currently have nuclear phase-out policies in place; and a number of other European countries have stated policies against nuclear power.

Overall, the current picture remains mixed, and projections for the future of nuclear power vary widely depending on what assumptions are made. The IAEA’s current "low" (or conservative) projection - which assumes that today´s nuclear plants will retire on schedule, and assumes no new construction beyond what is already firmly planned - would envision the total amount of nuclear electricity generated stabilizing after about 2020. The IAEA "high" projection, which includes additional scenarios for new nuclear plant construction, would envision nuclear power generating 86% more electricity in 2030 than at present, but still tapering off in its global share of electricity, due to even more rapid expansion in other electricity sources.

In my view, these projections are valuable because they highlight the factors that will be of crucial influence in shaping 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 - particularly as the world faces an unprecedented expansion in energy demand in the next 50 years. Much of this surge in demand will occur in nations on the path of economic development. The degree to which fossil fuels are tapped to meet this demand could have a major impact on global air pollution, as well as on the pace of fossil fuel depletion.

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 well 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 emitted per year. That is approximately twice the total amount that we estimate will be avoided by the Kyoto Protocol in 2010.

Security of Supply
A second factor is the current emphasis in some regions on ensuring the security of energy supply. For example, in Europe, the recent Green Paper on the security of energy supply estimated that business-as-usual would increase dependency on imported energy from around 50% in 2002, when the report was written, to around 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 the security of nuclear supply, given the diverse global roster of 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. In hindsight, it is not difficult to see why the past five decades of nuclear power did not turn out exactly as predicted. 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 those of the hundreds of other reactors in operation around the world. And despite the array of measures that have been put in place since Chernobyl to minimize the possibility of a severe nuclear accident, these risks can never be brought to zero, and they continue to weigh heavily on public perceptions.

How a given nation balances the risk of a nuclear accident against other factors - such as air pollution, dammed rivers, mining accidents or dependency on foreign fuel supplies - is a matter of complexity and legitimate debate. The environmental superiority of nuclear power as a source of electricity has frequently received less attention than the accumulation of spent fuel and radioactive waste. It is important for the nuclear community to provide comprehensible, accurate information to ensure that the risks and benefits of nuclear technology are clearly and fairly understood.

Innovation in Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology
Clearly, any opportunity for a nuclear power revival on a global scale will be realized only to the degree that the nuclear community is successful in addressing concerns related to: waste disposal, where progress remains slow; safety and security, where much work remains in store, in addition to needed improvements in the proliferation resistance of the fuel cycle; and the economic competitiveness of the nuclear industry.

Many of these issues will hopefully be addressed through technological innovation - in efforts such as the IAEA’s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO). INPRO seeks to assist nuclear R&D strategists in developing designs intended for future energy markets. INPRO and the US-initiated Generation IV International Forum complement each other in several ways, and we are beginning to see increased cooperation between these two projects on key objectives of mutual benefit - such as the recent Generation IV peer review of INPRO´s methodology.

India has been an active member of INPRO, and is one of several countries that have undertaken case studies to help evaluate INPRO user requirements and methodology, to sharpen them and increase their value for developing countries. India has also been a leader in exploring the potential for using nuclear energy in hydrogen production, and in using nuclear power plants in seawater desalination. And India´s foresight in working to improve the national electricity grid means that it can now bring on line larger nuclear power plants, including the two 1000 megawatt plants currently under construction.

India also deserves credit for the serious attention it has given to developing a world-class technological base, which compares favourably to the dwindling nuclear research efforts in many developed countries. The sheer size of India´s programme - including, for example, the 15 000 staff of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre - together with its success at getting young people into the nuclear career pipeline, sets an example for others to follow.

Nuclear Security
Turning now to nuclear security: you are all aware that the events of September 2001 propelled a rapid and dramatic re-evaluation of the risks of terrorism in all its forms - including the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. It became rapidly apparent that "the lesson of Chernobyl", in the safety sphere, should be applied to security as well: that is, that nuclear security should be urgently strengthened, without waiting for a "watershed" nuclear security event to provide the impetus for security upgrades and expanded international co-operation.

In the three years since, Agency efforts to help Member States increase their nuclear security have taken place at an exceptionally fast pace on multiple fronts. Since September 2001, working in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa, we have conducted more than 50 advisory and evaluation missions, and convened more than 60 training courses, workshops and seminars. International advisory service missions for nuclear security, physical protection, nuclear material accounting and radioactive source recovery have been provided to countries in every region of the world. Training courses and workshops have been held on the physical protection of nuclear facilities, the prevention of illicit trafficking in nuclear materials, responses to radiological emergencies resulting from malicious acts, and similar topics. The IAEA has strengthened its co-operation with relevant international organizations, such as Interpol, Europol, the Universal Postal Union and specialized United Nations agencies.

IAEA Member States have been most supportive in providing financial and in-kind resources to fund a broad range of actions — new threat assessments, upgraded border monitoring, facility security upgrades and coordinated actions to reduce the threat of "dirty bombs" as a terrorist weapon, to name a few. India has hosted workshops, participated in source recovery missions, provided technical insights on how engineered safety features at nuclear facilities can enhance security against sabotage, contributed to the upgrading of the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, served as a member of our nuclear security advisory group, and otherwise been very supportive of international nuclear security efforts.

Nuclear Applications

Non-power nuclear applications, although often overlooked, have expanded to become a nearly constant factor in daily life — such as in the radiation techniques used to sterilize medical supplies, or to toughen the rubber in automobile tires. In recent years, the IAEA´s focus — particularly under our technical cooperation programme — has increasingly been drawn to using nuclear and isotopic techniques to address daunting challenges in the developing world — hunger, disease, poverty and a shortage of drinking water.

Consider the application of the radiation induced "sterile insect technique" (or SIT) to control insect pests. The tsetse fly has long devastated sub-Saharan economies by killing livestock — including draft animals used in farming — and by spreading deadly sleeping sickness to humans. In 1997, SIT was successfully used to eliminate the tsetse fly from Zanzibar, where other techniques, including the massive application of pesticides, had failed. Long term projects are now underway to use SIT, with full government commitment, and in conjunction with other non-nuclear techniques, to eliminate the tsetse from other parts of Africa. And the same SIT technique has been used to eradicate the screwworm and the Mediterranean fruit fly (or medfly) from other countries and entire regions.

Perhaps an even greater socio-economic benefit has resulted from radiation induced mutation in crops. For example, the development of new rice strains has resulted throughout Asia in tens of billions of dollars of increased crop value at the farm gate. Similar results have also been obtained for other crops, such as cotton, bread wheat, chickpea and barley. IAEA laboratories are constantly at work on projects to create crops that will be resistant to drought, that will grow in saline lands, or that will produce greater yield. Most recently, the growth in DNA sequence information has enabled an approach to genetic studies based on specific gene functions, and radiation induced mutation is playing a key role in helping to identify gene characteristics that would improve the nutritional quality and pest resistance of plants.

The importance of this aspect of "Atoms for Peace" — using nuclear techniques to address socio-economic needs — cannot be overstressed. I could give many more examples. The Agency is initiating an extensive effort referred to as "PACT" - Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy - to raise funds to expand the availability of cancer treatment facilities in the developing world, as part of a campaign with the World Health Organization to offset an impending crisis in cancer management in these countries. Radioisotope tracers are being used to monitor factors that affect nutrition, particularly in children - a huge problem in developing countries, where nearly 200 million children are chronically undernourished. Isotope hydrology is being applied to measure and manage the supply of drinking water in underground aquifers, to monitor the integrity of dams and water reservoirs, and to understand the causes and effects of climate change. In short, we are working to apply nuclear techniques where they will count the most, to enhance the lives of people around the globe.

India is no stranger to these applications. The radioisotopes produced at Trombay are used in a broad range of medical, agricultural and industrial applications - including, I am told, current research into using SIT to control the cotton boll worm, and mutation breeding here at BARC that has successfully developed new and improved varieties of rice, jute, mustard, mung beans and other plants. India supports the IAEA´s technical cooperation programme, regularly paying its contributions in full; over the past five years, we have recruited about 500 Indian experts to our technical cooperation projects, hundreds of Indian participants have benefited from IAEA training courses, around 200 IAEA fellows and scientific associates have been trained in India, and we have purchased over $500 000 worth of Indian equipment for transfer to other developing countries. Clearly, these exchanges of nuclear technology and expertise have been of mutual benefit, and it is my hope that they will continue and expand further.

Nuclear Verification

The final aspect of the IAEA´s activities, nuclear verification, has recently been very much in the public spotlight. Since the discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme in the early 1990s, the Agency has devoted extensive effort towards strengthening the nuclear verification regime — so as to provide credible assurance to the international community that nuclear material and facilities under safeguards are being used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Most recently, in Iraq, Libya and Iran — we have been able to demonstrate how effective Agency verification can be, even under difficult conditions, provided that we are granted the required authority and access to relevant information. Other factors — including new verification tools and approaches, such as satellite imagery and environmental sampling — have made the Agency better equipped than ever to carry out its verification role. However, no strengthened safeguards measures can be fully effective in providing "global" assurances without addressing in parallel the causes of insecurity that provide incentives to acquire nuclear weapons.

As I have repeatedly stated, nuclear arms control and global security go hand in hand; the two topics must be addressed in parallel. It should come as no surprise that regions facing a security deficit are also those regions where proliferation concerns exist the most. We must therefore begin working together to address these regional security deficits and to develop and establish a system of collective security that does not depend on nuclear weapons. Concrete dialogue on this issue - and on how to take meaningful steps towards nuclear disarmament - should begin without delay; because until such an alternative system is developed, we are less likely to move away from the current reliance by some on nuclear weapons for their perceived deterrent effect.

India is one of a very few States that has not acceded to the NPT and has made the choice to pursue nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it is my hope that India will be willing to continue to contribute its insights and ideas on how we should move forward to strengthen regional and global security, so that future generations can enjoy a security system that transcends borders, is based on shared human values, and in which nuclear weapons have no place.


Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said, "We live in an age of great revolutionary changes brought about by the advance of science and technology. Therein lies hope for the world and also the danger of sudden death." These words, spoken in October 1960 to the United Nations General Assembly, remain profoundly relevant today. In the same speech, he also said, "To achieve peace, we have to try to develop a climate of peace and tolerance." It is my hope that all nations of the world will continue to work together in that spirit, so that the power of the atom can be harnessed as a tool for the benefit of human kind and not as an instrument of self-destruction.

I would like to conclude by thanking the Government of India — and all of you, as members of the Indian scientific community — for your ongoing support to the work of the IAEA, and I wish you continued success.


Last update: 26 July 2017