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Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sustainable Development

Vienna, Austria

Energy, in particular electricity, is of fundamental importance to sustainable development and nuclear fission offers the world ways of generating vast amounts of electricity and heat without causing acid rain or contributing to global warming and without risk that the fuel will run out. Nuclear power, rather than being largely ignored or written off by reference to public concerns, would deserve to be examined on its merits by UN organs in search of a sustainable energy mix.

There are many other peaceful uses of nuclear energy which directly facilitate or promote sustainable development. A few examples may suffice: radiation is used routinely in medicine against cancer; in agriculture, seeds are irradiated to produce new varieties which may be more high-yielding, more drought resistant or saline tolerant. Radioisotopes are used to trace water in arid zones and to find the right dosage of water or fertilizers for plants. The study of naturally occurring isotopes also contributes to understanding the environment. For example, by analysis of the isotopic composition of deep ice cores we can reconstruct climate change over thousands of years and thereby help predict future global change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. In short, nuclear techniques and radiation serve mankind in many important ways. The IAEA helps to promote sustainable development by transferring many of these techniques to developing countries. At the same time the Agency assists Member States in establishing radiation protection legislation and supervisory authorities to ensure that the techniques are used safely.

Nuclear waste has special characteristics and its transportation and disposal call for prudent handling. However, compared to many other types of hazardous waste it has one great merit - the volumes are small and can be safely managed in their entirety. Thus, a 1000 MW(e) nuclear power plant produces about 35 tonnes of spent fuel per year, while a coal power plant of similar capacity emits inter alia some 6.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Among the objections to nuclear power we often hear claims that "there is no solution to the problem of the disposal of nuclear waste". This is a misunderstanding. There is, indeed, remarkable agreement among nuclear scientists and engineers around the world about the techniques and methods of disposing of all nuclear wastes in ways which protect both present and future generations. For instance, the high level wastes can be encapsulated and embedded in the crust of the earth from where the uranium once came.

In the Rio process the IAEA was made the task manager for the question of nuclear waste. I am pleased to tell you that detailed internationally agreed safety standards on waste disposal have been adopted by the IAEA and a binding convention, as called for by the Commission on Sustainable Development, is expected to be concluded in a few months. This convention which covers spent fuel and radioactive waste management contains basic safety rules which are universally supported and opens the way for registration with the IAEA of disposal sites and for mutual peer review of disposal practices among the parties.

The transboundary movement of nuclear waste is covered by IAEA guidelines and is also referred to in the draft convention I just mentioned. The underlying principles are simple and straightforward:

Let me note that all the rules applicable and techniques available for the disposal of civilian nuclear waste are fully compatible with sustainable development. They allow the present generation to make use of nuclear energy without posing any threats to future generations. What is not compatible with sustainable development is the way we dispose of the wastes from energy generation by fossil fuels. These wastes are so voluminous that for the most part they are released into the atmosphere or deposited on the surface of the earth. In particular the gigantic emissions of carbon dioxide, which are linked to the burning of all hydrocarbons, raise the risk of global warming. No viable method is in sight to segregate and neutralize these emissions.

While a welcome consensus has existed for quite some time on energy efficiency and on further efforts to develop and use renewable sources of energy, there ought to be a greater awareness and recognition that these measures do not offer an adequate answer to the risk of global warming. The stark reality is that, since Rio, carbon dioxide emissions have been going up, not down. Various energy scenarios show that an expansion of nuclear power can have a significant impact. As reported last year by the International Energy Agency, increased reliance on nuclear power accounted for the greater part of the lowering of the carbon intensity of energy economies of the OECD countries for the last 25 years. At the present time, there are good reasons to appreciate that much of the rapid economic development in North East Asia is supported by nuclear power. Experience shows that the alternative to such large base load electricity generation by nuclear power would be power generation by fossil fuels.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018


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