Brussels, 28 Jun 2004
Exactly half a century after a nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union became the first to be connected to a national electricity grid, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has said that the future of nuclear energy in Europe is still far from clear.
Despite there being more nuclear power plants in Western Europe and North America than anywhere else, the majority of new facilities are being built in Asia. Of the plants currently being constructed, 18 will be located in the region, while Eastern Europe (including Russia) comes second in terms of new constructions with a total of eight.
According to the IAEA, the factors driving the expansion of nuclear energy in Asia are the pressures of economic growth, a scarcity of natural resources and increasing populations. And while the expansion of nuclear energy in Western Europe has all but halted, the agency does not rule out the possibility that this picture could change dramatically in the coming years.
'The more we look to the future, the more we can expect countries to be considering the potential benefits that expanding nuclear power has to offer for the global environment and for economic growth,' says IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei.
'The decision to adopt nuclear power cannot be made on a 'one-size-fits-all' basis. New nuclear plants are most attractive where energy demand is growing and alternative resources are scarce, and where energy security and reduced air pollution and greenhouse gases are a priority. But some countries have rejected nuclear power in their energy mix because of concerns about safety and waste,' Mr ElBaradei added.
IAEA experts issue regular projections on the future of nuclear power, but since these estimates often rely on political decisions not yet taken in many countries, the IAEA makes both 'high' and 'low' estimates. In its most recent 'low' assessment, the IAEA sees the amount of nuclear electricity generated increasing annually until 2020, but as this rate of growth would be slower than for other energy sources, the nuclear share of world electricity generated would fall from its current level of 16 per cent to 12 per cent by 2020.
In its 'high' estimate, the IAEA projects that nuclear power will generate 70 per cent more electricity in 2030 than in 2002, representing steady growth, but having little impact on nuclear's share of the overall electricity generating mix. However, the IAEA points to longer term studies by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others for evidence of an even stronger showing for nuclear energy in the coming decades.
These studies calculate the total energy needed to raise living standards around the world, as well as accounting for the depletion of fossil fuel resources and predicting what will make greatest economic sense in the long term. They conclude that the use of nuclear power will increase by 2.5 times by 2030, representing per cent of total electricity production, rising to a fourfold increase by 2050.
There are a number of factors that will determine which of these various futures envisaged for nuclear power will come to pass, according to the IAEA. Crucially, nuclear safety and waste appear to be the key issues that currently dissuade countries from adopting the technology. On the issue of safety, while the IAEA says that substantial progress has been made in improving the performance record of facilities, a number of issues, such as equipment ageing concerns, require further attention. However, Tomihiro Taniguchi, IAEA deputy director general for nuclear safety, stresses: 'The bottom line is that there is now widespread international recognition of and commitment to the principle that [nuclear power plant] operations must focus on safety, first and foremost.'
On the question of nuclear waste, the IAEA argues that the scientific community generally agrees that high-level waste and spent fuel can be safely disposed of through deep geological burial. 'However, in many countries around the world there has not been much progress in developing repositories for [...] disposal, and resolving this issue is likely to be a key factor influencing the future development of nuclear power,' states the IAEA.
Innovation will also be a key factor in the development of future nuclear technologies, according to IAEA's deputy director for nuclear energy, Yuri Sokolov: 'In the longer term, new innovative designs, with shorter construction times and significantly lower capital costs could help promote a new era of nuclear power,' he said.
The IAEA estimates that the world's known uranium deposits recoverable using today's technology will last for 50 to 65 years, but says that future technological breakthroughs might be expected to extend the usefulness of these resources by a factor of 60. 'Taking all factors into account there are certainly no resource constraints on nuclear power development in the 21st century and, most likely, for a long time thereafter,' concluded Mr Sokolov.
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