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Symposium on Desalination of Seawater with Nuclear Energy

Vienna, Austria


It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to this IAEA Symposium on Desalination of Seawater with Nuclear Energy.

I should like, at the outset, to express appreciation to several international organizations which have helped significantly to bring the seminar about: the International Desalination Association and the Global Technology Development Centre. I should like also warmly to thank the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute for their substantial support.

Let me also state at the outset my personal conviction that nuclear energy will come to be increasingly used in the future to desalinate water for drinking.

Water is essential to life and to civilization. Four great civilizations in the history of mankind arose along a river: the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Indus in India, and the Yellow River in China. Fresh water is a precondition for human life and industrial development. However, economic development and population growth is today jeopardizing the adequacy of potable water resources in many regions of the world. Increased pollution and salinity of the natural fresh water resources are worsening the problem.

How can we tackle this grave and growing problem? Slowing the growth of the world population is one necessity. Let me give you some staggering figures to illustrate where our successful species has been moving - with dizzying speed.

It has been calculated that at the time of Christ the population of the Earth was about 350 million; in 1900 it was 1.5 billion; in 1990 it was about 5 billion; and in the year 2000 it is expected to be about 6 billion. Thus in the last 10 years of this century the world's population will increase by almost as much as it did in the first 1900 years from the birth of Christ. Such proliferation is not sustainable. It needs to be drastically slowed. Although recent trends give some ground for optimism the process will take time. Meanwhile we must seek to better use existing resources and expand resources - notably fresh water resources, food resources and energy resources. Nuclear techniques, although not liked by all, can be of great help in all three regards.

Desalination is one of the most promising options for supplying potable water. The cumulative worldwide desalination capacity has increased steadily in the past decades, and this trend is expected to continue into the next century. According to the World Meteorological Organization, water consumption increased sixfold between 1900 and 1995, twice the rate of population growth. To meet this increasing demand for fresh water, the installation of seawater desalination facilities has increased dramatically since the early 1960s. The cumulative capacity, installed and contracted, has reached more than 20 million m3/d by 1995.

Relevant reasons which have led in the past decades to the deployment of nuclear power for electricity generation included economic competitiveness, energy supply diversification, technological development promotion and environmental protection. Some of these reasons could also favour the choice of nuclear energy for seawater desalination.

Within the IAEA the feasibility of using nuclear energy for seawater desalination was surveyed as early as in the 1960s and 1970s. However, interest was then focussed on electricity generation and district heating. A renewed interest in nuclear desalination was expressed by several Member States in an IAEA General Conference Resolution in 1989 (GC(XXXIII)/RES/515). As a result, the Agency resumed its study in 1989, and the technical and economic potential of nuclear reactors for seawater desalination have been assessed in the light of experience gained in recent years.

The use of nuclear-generated heat for distillation processes is similar to the use of nuclear heat for district heating and industrial processes. The technical viability of using nuclear heat for the supply of hot water and steam for district heating and other industrial processes has been demonstrated both in dedicated nuclear heating plants and in heat and power cogeneration plants. Nuclear heat application systems have been in service worldwide for over 20 years without any serious problems. Nuclear cogeneration plants were built and operated in Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Kazakstan, Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland and the USA. Almost 500 reactor-years of quite satisfactory and encouraging operational experience have been accumulated. The plants have operated safely and reliably. The design precautions to prevent the transfer of radioactivity into the district heating grid network, the industrial products or the desalted water have proven effective and reliable. A greater use of nuclear power for district heating in cold climates and for the production of industrial heat could help restrain the CO2 emissions which would result from an alternative use of fossil fuels for these purposes.

Experience with Nuclear Desalination

Desalination facilities connected to nuclear power plants in Japan and Kazakstan have been producing desalted water for years. So there is a good deal of experience. Several Member States have begun to show interest in this option and ongoing or planned national and bilateral projects will contribute to further experience in nuclear desalination. Such projects would be useful for possible broader commercial deployment, which could contribute to solve the drinking water supply problems in the next century. These projects include activities in the People's Republic of China, India, Republic of Korea, Morocco and the Russian Federation. Together with studies and R&D work in some other interested Member States, these projects contribute to a demonstration programme which could form a basis for international co-operation and support, beneficial also for other interested Member States. It will be important to utilize the experience gained from these programmes, and avoid duplicating activities.

In the course of the studies which have been undertaken to date, it has been found that seawater desalination using nuclear energy could be a realistic option for many Member States. Thus, the expanding demand for seawater desalination installations presents a potential market for the introduction and commercial deployment of nuclear desalination. This constitutes the challenging background of our Symposium.

Current Status and Potential Use of Nuclear Power

So far nuclear energy has been exploited chiefly for electricity generation. Desalination of water is only one of several other uses that could be made of this source of energy. Let me share some thoughts with you on this subject.

To be attractive as a source of energy nuclear must be economically competitive with other options and acceptable to the public.

It is clear that nuclear power is now a mature technology - a generally viable option for electricity generation. As developing countries are often capital starved and nuclear power calls for high up-front investments and as many of these countries also cannot provide the necessary industrial or technical infrastructure, nuclear power is concentrated in industrialized countries which account for more than 90% of the total operating nuclear capacity.

Currently, nuclear power economics are favourable when compared to alternative sources in a number of locations, but not everywhere. The achievement of high availability and load factors is important, and large efforts - especially in the sphere of management and safety - are dedicated to this end. Many operators have achieved consistently high availability, others have improved the availability spectacularly in relatively short periods of time. The worldwide average availability of nuclear power plants shows a steadily improving trend.

Here in the Republic of Korea, the average availability factor in 1996 exceeded 87% - with nuclear electricity generating costs being cheaper than the other sources of generation used in the country's electricity system. I note also that in the Republic of Korea the application of nuclear energy for seawater desalination is being investigated and the domestic design of an advanced reactor is planned to be completed by the end of the century.

Indeed, one cannot avoid being impressed by the rapid deployment of nuclear power in the Republic of Korea, in Japan and in China - especially when it is compared with the stagnation which we witness in the Western industrialized States. What makes the difference?

Part of the reason for the difference no doubt lies in the fact that there is a rapidly growing demand for electricity in the economically fast developing East Asian countries, while the Western industrialized countries for various reasons have experienced a stagnating demand. Also the relatively easy availability of inexpensive natural gas has made nuclear generated electricity less competitive than that produced in combined cycle gas plants in many Western industrialized States. This certainly raises a challenge for the nuclear industry to improve the economy of nuclear power.

There is little doubt that especially for the Republic of Korea and Japan, which both have huge energy depending industries and poor domestic energy resources, nuclear power offers an important measure of self-reliance. Nuclear fuel can be stocked for long periods of operation and the operators can thus immunize themselves against delivery interruptions which have sometimes afflicted fossil fuels.

If cost and energy independence are factors that can be relatively easily examined, it is more difficult to assess the factor of public acceptance in different countries. What one can clearly see in many Western industrialized countries is that the opposition is sufficiently strong for governments to be - perhaps not convinced - but influenced by it. Whatever the weight of a similar opinion in East Asia, the imperatives of providing vast new reliable energy sources for people and industry, have led the governments of the Republic of Korea, Japan and China to continue pursuing their ambitious nuclear power programmes. It may well be that their successful examples will, one day, trigger the nuclear revival in the West.

Some of the factors which influence the public's attitude to nuclear energy are not easily defined and assessed. Despite all the research and knowledge which we have about radiation, it is clearly a phenomenon with which the public has not yet come to grips. Perhaps we have to await another generation which learnt more about it already at school?

The linkage - in the minds of some - between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is another possibly relevant factor. Yet, in Japan, where it should be the strongest, it has not stood in the way of a highly successful, large nuclear power development. Whatever is the relevance of this factor, it should be diminishing in importance as global nuclear disarmament and regional nuclear weapon free zones reduce the relevance of nuclear weapons. The belligerent atom is put back in the bottle. The peaceful atom dominates the scene.

In my view the environmental consequences of different energy sources will come to play - and already do play - an increasing role for the public's acceptance of any source and I am profoundly convinced that this factor will speak strongly for a future expanded use of nuclear power in the countries which have a sufficient technological capacity.

The intensifying discussion about the risk of global warming strongly suggests that the present global level of use of coal, oil and gas is unsustainable. Two large international conferences will face the issue this year: a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on Sustainable Development at the end of June in New York and the Third Session of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change, which will meet in Kyoto towards the end of this year.

There will certainly be no grand plan, no grand consensus, not even a joint blueprint on global energy policies. Governments, just as people, do not easily agree in this field and often have widely different interests to protect. But on one starting point there is growing consensus, namely that globally we must restrain the emissions of carbon dioxide linked to the burning of all fossil fuels. And more: there is no viable technical method in sight which could segregate and neutralize these emissions. They must be restricted, by a more efficient burning and by less burning.

Opponents of nuclear power try to tell us that solar and wind power and biomass could give us effective alternatives to both fossil fuels and nuclear power. While these sources are welcome, while they do have their niches and should be further developed, it is not credible to suggest that they could provide the world with the large amounts of base load power which will be needed for growing populations and industrial and social development. Let me develop this thought: As the ardent advocates of renewable sources suggesting that China, to take an important example, rather than building a 1000 MW nuclear plant should use some 3000-5000 km2 to grow the biomass that would be needed to generate 1000 MW? Or cover 50-60 km2 to install the solar cells or windmills that would be needed? Are these advocates blind to the reality that the alternative to the nuclear power plant is mainly the burning of coal?

In my view the well-meaning but somewhat dreamy advocacy of solar and wind power and biomass combined with a rejection of nuclear power contribute to a continued undesirable expanded use of fossil fuels - an expansion which could be avoided or at least significantly restrained by a much expanded use of nuclear power. Let me illustrate: if today's some 442 nuclear power plants were closed, and the base load electricity which they now generate without CO2 emissions were generated by coal fired plants, some 2600 million tons of CO2 would be added to the world's atmosphere - i.e. 9% of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels worldwide.

As the public's concern about global warming gets stronger - as I think it should do - the urge to find realistic substitutes for some of the fossil fuel energy generation will get stronger. It is my firm conviction that nuclear energy is the strongest candidate. The resource base in uranium and thorium is vast and - if one day breeders were extensively used - could be almost limitless. The safety record of nuclear power is excellent when compared to other energy sources and this even if Chernobyl is included. However, the public demands higher safety in nuclear power than in other energy production. This can and must be supplied. The IAEA convention on nuclear safety has entered into force so we now have basic safety rules which will come to bind all States - and procedures for peer review. A global nuclear safety culture is developing. A similar situation exists regarding the disposal of nuclear wastes from the civilian sector. A new IAEA convention laying down basic rules binding all parties in this field - and laying down rules for peer review - is expected to be ready shortly. The problem with nuclear waste disposal is not so much adequate technology - which does exist - as psychology. We must bring home to the public the understanding that there are not only "alternative energies" but also "alternative wastes". The high-level nuclear waste will be put in its entirely deep into the crust of the earth from where the uranium once came. The alternative waste of the fossil fuels goes into the world's atmosphere, giving us acid rains, dying lakes and forests and, possibly, global warming and climate change.

Let me conclude by expressing the hope that this Symposium will be useful to show that nuclear energy can have a very important role to play when drinking water must be produced through desalination.

I wish you a successful Symposium.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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