Brussels, 11 Aug 2004
In its annual report for 2003, published on 9 August, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed its concern at the ageing of the nuclear workforce and the lack of university courses offering nuclear sciences. As a result, the agency calls for more to be done to ensure knowledge preservation and management.
The IAEA is also encouraging member states to invest more in research in order to develop both innovative technologies in this field and non-power applications of nuclear technology.
'Since the late 1980s, nuclear electricity generation has grown at about the same rate as overall global electricity generation [...]. However, this is well below its rapid expansion in the 1970s and early 1980s, and many universities - and governments - have now reduced or eliminated their support for the study of nuclear science and engineering,' explained the IAEA in its annual report.
Yet the large number of existing nuclear power plans (439 world wide) as well as the need for a new generation of plant designs means that it is increasingly important for countries with nuclear facilities to look into 'succession planning in the nuclear industry, to ensure that a new generation of younger people with the proper education and skills can replace the ageing nuclear workforce,' adds the IAEA.
The preservation of nuclear knowledge must, therefore, be a top priority for all member states, to ensure that the knowledge and skills of the current generation of experienced nuclear professionals are transferred effectively.
According to the IAEA, it is also important to develop process driven applications and inventories of fast reactor data and knowledge to support future work in this area and prevent data and information loss, to ensure retrievability and to establish software and hardware standards for data preservation over the next 30 to 40 years.
The IAEA also notes that the future of nuclear power is dependent on two factors. The first is the 'critical issue' of the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. Indeed, this issue is vital 'in terms of the public acceptance of nuclear technology and for any future expansion on nuclear energy,' reports the IAEA.
Second: 'The future viability of nuclear power is dependent not only on resolving issues of economics, safety and security, waste management and proliferation resistance, but also on the development of innovative technologies that can enhance the positive aspects of this energy source.'
At present, 20 IAEA member governments (out of a total of 140) are working on evolutionary and innovative reactor and fuel cycle designs, the agency said.
Complementing these national initiatives are two major international efforts to promote innovation - the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) and the IAEA's international project on innovative nuclear reactors and fuel cycles (INPRO). In 2002, GIF selected six concepts for international collaborative research and development and, in 2003, made progress on establishing the management and structure for specific cooperative research and development (R&D) agreements and subsequent work.
Furthermore, according the report, non-power applications of nuclear technology are gaining importance as tools for social and economic development, especially in terms of food production and healthcare, and should be developed further.
For example, gamma ray and X ray induced mutations have revolutionised plant breeding by modifying the appearance of crops, enhancing disease and pest resistance and raising nutritional and processing quality.
In the healthcare sector, nuclear medicine is proving very useful in the fight against cancer. To access the annual report of the IAEA, please visit the following web address: http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Reports /Anrep2003/index.html