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Sustainable Development and Nuclear Power

Vienna, Austria

The title of this Conference - "Nuclear Future: Pacific Basin Challenges for Sustainable Development" - contains three terms which, I am sure, will become more and more important as we move into the 21st century:

First, the old eurocentric notion, "Far East", is fading and our minds are turning to the "Pacific Basin", connoting a vast area, rich and diverse in culture, endowed with large natural and human resources, and undergoing dynamic growth and change. The automobile was invented and developed in the West but Asian cars now have one of the largest shares of the world market. And while the United States and Europe once championed nuclear power, it is in the Western rim of the Pacific that nuclear power is now making great strides.

Second, nuclear power is now generating about 17% of the world's electricity - a little less than all the world's hydropower. It is helping several countries in this energy hungry region to avoid having all their energy eggs in the fossil basket. The countries of North East Asia - Japan, Republic of Korea, China and Taiwan (China) - should be complimented for championing extremely forward-looking nuclear programmes, which are no doubt stimulating thinking in the region as a whole. Let us hope that the rationality of this approach will be maintained and that the region's steadfast espousing of the latest nuclear power technology will provoke some fresh thinking in other regions of the world.

Third, by sustainable development - now an internationally accepted goal - we understand a development which utilizes our natural resources to raise standards of living but which does not jeopardize the wellbeing and possibilities of future generations. For instance, we should exploit the riches of the sea but not deplete fisheries.

The call for "sustainable development" is a justified result of our increasing awareness that in many fields of activity we have, in fact, pursued development which is anything but sustainable. It is by now generally understood that current patterns and trends in the world's energy use are not sustainable. The gigantic scale on which we use fossil fuels involves the burning up, at a very fast pace, of resources created during millions of years. Moreover, in this process, through imprudence, we have caused much damage to forest, land and water and we are realizing that the release into the atmosphere of CO2 and methane at current rates may change the world's climate. Hence the call for restraint in the emissions particularly of CO2 through restraint in the use of fossil fuels.

While this conclusion is rather generally accepted, there is very little agreement on how the restraint is to be achieved. Western industrialized States might perhaps suggest that all countries should freeze their CO2 emissions at current levels. Populous developing countries might perhaps then counter by suggesting a licence for CO2 emissions per capita ... The stage seems set for a global debate between those who already consume a lot of energy and those who expect to increase their use dramatically. This is especially likely if recent estimates that CO2 emissions, far from stagnating, can be expected to be 30% higher in 2010 than in 1990. (Trilateral commission, International Herald Tribune, 1996-09-13).

There is an understanding that more efficient generation and use of energy is desirable and that solar and wind power and biomass energy should be further developed. But this will not take us very far. A big question which many recognize, but few if any governments publicly discuss, is whether a strong expansion of nuclear power should be part of a global sustainable energy policy. At the second session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Mr. Priddle, Executive Director of the IEA in Paris, although not addressing the question directly, pointed to past experience and reminded participants that, I quote:

Non-Proliferation

It is probably true that some people's attitude to nuclear power is negatively influenced by associations to nuclear bombs. This association is understandable but not very rational. Nuclear bombs and nuclear power are not Siamese twins. There is no inescapable link between the two. Gasoline can be used in napalm bombs but we do not refrain from using it for controlled explosions to power our cars. Just because uranium and plutonium can be used in weapons we should not refrain from using these fuels for our benefit to generate electricity or heat.

It speaks well for the rational long-term thinking of the host country of this Conference, Japan, that despite being subjected to nuclear attack and devastation, it has succeeded in being in the front line of the development and use of the peaceful atom.

As the world is now moving out of the nuclear weapons era I think associations to these weapons will have less and less influence on the public's attitude to nuclear power. It remains important, however, both for our security and for our attitudes to the use of nuclear power that the dismantling of nuclear weapons is real and permanent and that all nuclear installations declared for peaceful use are kept that way. Fortunately, with the end of the Cold War, the incentive for the development of nuclear weapons is decreasing almost everywhere and the incentive to nuclear disarmament is strong.

The US and Russia are now dismantling nuclear weapons at a fast pace and they are ready to ask the IAEA to verify that the released nuclear material will not go into new weapons. In 1995 the Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which some 170 countries in the world promise not to acquire nuclear weapons, was given an unlimited extension. Recently a Complete Test Ban Treaty was voted into existence and, despite some impediments, negotiations are likely to start on a treaty prohibiting the production of Pu and HEU for weapons purposes - a cut-off treaty. If we add to this list new treaties on nuclear-weapon-free zones in Africa and South East Asia, we can conclude that the evil genie is moving back into the bottle. This is good news for the world and good news for peaceful nuclear power. However, to have confidence, we must feel sure that the agreed nuclear arms control and disarmament measures are really implemented. For this there must be effective verification.

After the discovery that Iraq, despite being a party to the NPT, was developing a capacity to enrich uranium and to build a nuclear weapon, and after the discovery through advanced IAEA safeguards techniques that the DPRK had not declared all its Pu, efforts have accelerated to strengthen the safeguards system of the IAEA. The main new features, now being discussed between governments in Vienna, are requirements for more information and for providing inspectors greater access to installations. The aim of these measures is to make the nuclear activities in States more transparent and comprehensible to the IAEA inspectorate which has the responsibility to make evaluations about the States' activities from the non-proliferation point of view.

The aim of these strengthening efforts have wide support. However, some governments - and industries - are concerned about the greater amount of data they will have to compile and present and about opening up to inspection installations which may have commercial or technical secrets. We hope that these qualms will be overcome. Some States, which accepted the proposed measures on a trial basis, did not find them unduly onerous or cumbersome. The IAEA Secretariat certainly wants a strengthened system, but it, too, wants a system which is not too cumbersome to operate. We are convinced that confidentiality, which has not been violated in the past, will not be compromised in the future. We trust that the nuclear industry and research institutions will co-operate. After all, without the confidence that can come from effective safeguards, nuclear trade and the transfer of nuclear technology will suffer.

There are many more things that countries can do to ensure non-proliferation - apart from facilitating verification. Export controls of sensitive equipment and technology is one. Regional arrangements for some fuel cycle activities, notably enrichment and reprocessing, may be yet another. Such arrangements might give States within a region assurances through mutual transparency. The models of URENCO and Eurodiff come to mind.

If regional fuel cycle activities might sometimes be of interest to achieve increased mutual confidence and, perhaps, economy, it is not invariably true that regional safeguards verification would offer advantages. In those nuclear-weapon-free zones which have been agreed to until now - in Latin America, Africa as well as in South East Asia and the South Pacific - the parties have chosen to rely primarily on IAEA safeguards, which most of them have to accept anyway as parties to the NPT. The cases of Euratom and ABACC (Argentina-Brazil) might seem to point in a different direction. It must be remembered, however, that the regional safeguards system under those two arrangements came into being before comprehensive IAEA safeguards had been accepted. The international community has not so far accepted regional safeguards as a substitute for international ones. It is conceivable, however, that in some situations, e.g. the Middle East, internationally operated NPT safeguards might be supplemented by regional safeguards arrangements - perhaps allowing for challenge inspections.

I turn now to nuclear safety.

We know that the risk of death is much higher if you go by car than if you fly - whether you count the risk per kilometer travelled or per trip made. Yet most people are more afraid of flying. Similarly, an audience of nuclear experts knows that - even if the Chernobyl accident is taken into account - the number of fatalities resulting from accidents in the civilian use of nuclear power is low - say per gigawatt - compared to the deaths resulting from electricity generation by coal or gas. Yet, the public at large is much more fearful of the small risk of a big nuclear accident than the risk of gas explosions.

Factors such as the risk of radioactive contamination beyond a plant and the alien and invisible threat of radiation surely play a role in creating this attitude. It is not likely to change except perhaps over time with schooling making radiation as familiar a phenomenon to the next generation as electronics are to our teenagers.

The conclusion I draw is not that it is meaningless to try to explain risk to the public. On the contrary this must be done much more than today to help create a psychological and political climate in which we spend resources to reduce risks that are significant realities rather than perceived fears. Nevertheless, we must probably recognize that only prolonged civilian nuclear power operation without any accidents releasing radioactivity into the environment anywhere will dispel the resistance to the use of nuclear power that we find in some parts of the public all over the world.

To achieve this, nuclear power simply has to set its safety goals much higher than any other technologies for energy generation do - and this on a global basis. This is doable. We may even claim today that a global nuclear safety culture has come into existence and is asserting itself. The results can be seen in fewer unplanned stoppages at nuclear power plants, higher availability and lower radiation doses to plant personnel.

In the sphere of nuclear safety, too, there is room for some useful efforts on a regional basis to address specific regional needs and circumstances. Training, for example, might be undertaken regionally - perhaps with economic gains. I note that the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) is working primarily on a regional basis - with great success. Nevertheless, we must not lose the global perspective. We know that "an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere" and there are still some shortcomings in the world in the field of nuclear safety resulting from the regional isolation of nuclear activities in the sphere of the former Soviet Union.

The safety culture of nuclear power - like that of aviation - must be global. Basic norms of this culture now exist, first of all in the shape of the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety, which will enter into force on 24 October and which will require of all parties that they observe certain basic standards, that they report on safety matters and that they submit to peer review. There are, secondly, the non-binding but recommendatory IAEA nuclear safety standards (NUSS) which began to emerge many years ago. These standards are kept up to date through the incorporation of the experience of the whole nuclear world. While national authorities are solely responsible for the maintenance of nuclear safety, they can seek guidance and support in the standards to which all IAEA members using nuclear power have contributed their experience.

A third element consists in services by international nuclear safety experts. Certainly some such advisory services could be rendered on a regional - or even bilateral - basis. Nevertheless the possibility of drawing on the expertise around the whole world remains valuable.

Let me conclude my remarks on nuclear safety by reporting to you that after several years work an important element of the international legal infrastructure related to safety is expected to emerge in modernized shape in the coming year, namely the rules about responsibility in case of nuclear damage, i.e. rules about liability. Victims of nuclear damage should be entitled to due compensation, wherever the accident. This may now be ensured.

Let me now comment on the subject of nuclear waste. An article appeared recently in the International Herald Tribune (1996-09-17) where the columnist, having studied a report on the world's increasing reliance on fossil fuel, concluded that nuclear power should be "de-demonized" and that it could emerge as the cleanest and most efficient energy source of the 21st century, provided that, I quote, "the problem of radioactive waste can be solved". It is common belief that we don't know what to do with nuclear waste and I suspect that revelations about the severe problems which exist regarding military nuclear waste add to peoples' scepticism.

It is true, of course, that the issue of long lived radioactive waste is unsolved in the sense that we cannot concretely study the eventual results of our disposal measures. That opportunity lies thousands of years down the road. I think that the public, on reflection, will not fault the nuclear community for not doing this. However, this community might be faulted for not having explained more effectively to the public the technical concepts and plans which do exist and which are fairly similar all over the world for the disposal of long lived waste. It was several years ago that an inquiry made under the OECD concluded that such disposal could be safely achieved.

It also needs to be brought home to the public that because the volume of nuclear high level waste is so small it can be taken care of in its entirety and be isolated deep down in the earth with minuscule risk compared to the risks we run with the huge amounts of fossil fuels wastes which are released into the atmosphere.

The methods and concepts which exist today for nuclear waste disposal may be further developed and improved and we may even one day see innovative techniques like the transmutation of wastes. There is no reason, however, to doubt the world's technical ability to take care already today of the nuclear waste which it generates. Within the IAEA, governments are now engaged in drafting a convention on the basic safety requirements which must be placed on all such waste disposal. The same basic norms must evidently be observed all over the world and we may wish to see countries reporting in an international forum on the measures they take - with peer review, as in the field of nuclear safety.

Let me also say that it seems to be currently politically correct thinking to hold that each country must dispose of all its nuclear waste. Such thinking is not based on any rational ground. Of course, a country generating nuclear waste, whether in hospitals or in power plants, must responsibly take care of this waste if no other country would be willing - against payment - to arrange the disposal. However, opponents of nuclear power seem to be succeeding in demonizing nuclear waste to such a degree that the very thought of receiving waste from another country would be sinful. We should not allow ourselves to be snared by such thinking. If a country has built good and safe facilities for the disposal of nuclear waste - whether low, medium or high level - and has the technical competence to manage such facilities, it is hard to see any rational reason why it should not earn some money on its investment and skill.

Nuclear Power Expansion as Part of a Sustainable Global Energy Mix

If the questions which have been raised regarding non-proliferation, nuclear safety and nuclear waste are found, upon analysis, not to be justified grounds for leaving nuclear power outside the discussion of a sustainable global energy policy - as regrettably is now largely the case - what would be the benefits of including consideration of an expanded use of nuclear power?

The first benefit evidently is that nuclear power releases hardly any emissions to the world's atmosphere: no CO2, no SO2and no NOx. Hence, it does not contribute to acid rains or global warming, the very problems which result from the present accelerated use of fossil fuels and which make excessive reliance on them unsustainable. The CO2 equivalent emission factors for the entire nuclear fuel chain - i.e. from uranium mining to waste disposal - range from 10-50 g/kWh or about the same as for energy generated by wind power. The comparable factors for fossil fuel chains range from 450 to 1200 g/kWh.

Within an IAEA programme called DECADES a number of case studies have been made, comparing inter alia carbon emissions of various electricity generation technologies. A study made regarding Japan shows carbon emissions between 2.5 and 5 grams per kWh of electricity generated by nuclear power and 6 grams for hydro power - compared with 140 to 180 g for gas fired plants.

The second benefit in an expanded reliance on nuclear power lies in the cost. Fossil fuels overwhelmingly dominate in the global energy use, one obvious reason being that they are cheap and convenient. For the foreseeable future it will not be economically feasible to substitute much fossil fuel with solar, or wind power or biomass. These energy sources, which must be welcomed and developed as much as possible, may make valuable contributions in specific circumstances but will be marginal in relation to expanding baseload energy needs. Nuclear generation of electricity has become more expensive and - depending upon discount rate and other factors - is not invariably the cheapest option. Nevertheless, on the whole one can say that the cost of coal and nuclear generated electricity are of roughly the same order. Certainly it would be justified to maintain that expanding nuclear power in order to restrain the reliance on fossil fuels would constitute a no regret solution, to counter the risk of global warming. By this I mean that even if it were to turn out - contrary to present dominant expert opinion - that the threat of global warming was not real, we would have no reason to regret having expanded reliance on nuclear power rather than fossil fuel. Since this source of power is economically competitive, we would not have lost any money on the investment. Had we invested in solar or wind power to replace fossil fuels, we would have incurred a great additional expense which we would regret if the feared global warming turned out not to be real.

The conclusion that is ever more visible to all those who are willing to look is that nuclear power has a greater potential to restrain greenhouse gas emissions than any other commercially proven generating technology.

It is remarkable that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), although recognizing the past contributions of nuclear power and leaving open the option of a role for nuclear power to help reduce further increases in greenhouse gas emissions, focusses on other scenarios to respond to the threat of global warming.

The potential use of nuclear energy is great and diversified. At present, about 30% of the world's primary energy consumption is used for electricity generation, about 15% is used for transportation and the remaining 55% is converted into hot water, steam and heat. The potential market for applications of nuclear energy in the non-electric energy sector may be quite large. Such applications may include desalination of water for drinking, hot water for district heating and heat energy for petroleum refining. An important milestone in the development of high-temperature nuclear process heat was reached in May 1991 with the start of construction of the High Temperature Test Reactor (HTTR) at the Oarai Research Establishment of the Japanese Atomic Energy Institute. This reactor will be the first nuclear reactor in the world to be connected to a high-temperature process heat utilization system.

Russia has used nuclear propelled ice-breakers with excellent results over a long time in the most demanding Arctic conditions. Why should it be out of the question to propel large cargo ships by nuclear power when ice-breakers, aircraft carriers and submarines rely on nuclear reactors?

My conclusion is that it is important for future sustainable development that public opinion and governments realize that the nuclear contribution to the global energy mix need to be and can be vastly expanded.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018

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