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Nuclear energy: Towards sustainable development

OECD countries share the same goals of sustainable development, but differ in their views on the role of nuclear energy in achieving those goals. Indeed, few energy sources have been scrutinised in the public spotlight over the years quite as much. The question is simple: is nuclear really a sustainable energy?

There is good reason to believe it is, but that does not mean all the challenges have been resolved. If they had, nuclear energy’s value would be beyond debate. Still, some member governments of the OECD that have historically been sceptical are now giving nuclear energy a hard look. They are right to do so.

Like any other energy source and technology, nuclear energy has advantages and drawbacks in each of the three dimensions of sustainable development: environmental, social and economic. Policymakers must have authoritative facts, figures and analyses to support their decisions on energy choices. The Nuclear Energy Agency can provide expertise and help governments assess nuclear energy on a level playing field, with alternatives.

The political consensus nowadays is to encourage an energy mix, with different sources of supply playing a role. This makes sense if we are to meet the growing demand for energy needs, not least in rapidly growing developing countries, and to preserve our environment. Cleanliness, security of supply, efficiency, affordability: these are the key energy challenges we face.

These challenges also point to the attraction of nuclear energy and help explain renewed public interest in it. Nuclear power is a nearly carbon-free electricity generation source, with a large and diversified fuel resource base. There is a general recognition that nuclear energy is part of the solution, together with renewable energy sources, carbon capture and sequestration, and the like. Consider some of the arguments more closely.

One of the advantages enjoyed by nuclear power plant operators is security of supply. Uranium, the natural material for fuelling nuclear power plants, is plentiful and well distributed across the planet. Although, at present, annual uranium production provides only some 60% of reactor consumption, secondary sources, such as inventories of producers, utilities and governments, and ex-military materials, are sufficient to cover demand. In addition, the geopolitical distribution of uranium producers, which include such countries as Australia and Canada, greatly reduces the risk of the kind of market disruptions experienced during oil crises, for example.

In the long term, we are confident that ample natural resources and progress in technology can ensure nuclear fuel supply, whatever the development of nuclear energy may be. Conventional uranium resources represent 270 years of present annual consumption. Other resources are known to exist and could be made available with further exploration and development efforts. Moreover, the introduction of advanced reactors and fuel cycles could multiply the lifetime of those resources by 30 or more and allow for a sharp rise in demand. Indeed, breeder reactors could eventually make nuclear energy a quasi-renewable source.


Click here for bigger graph
Source: NEA/IEA, 2005

There are economic arguments too. The competitiveness of existing nuclear power plants has been proven. Low and stable marginal production costs are a key advantage, particularly in liberalised markets. Fuel cycle costs represent less than 20% of the total cost of generating nuclear electricity, and uranium, despite recent sharp price rises, still accounts for less than 5% of the total. This is considerably lower than for gas, for instance.

Recent studies have shown that new nuclear power plants can compete favourably with alternatives, generally gas- and/or coal-fired plants, in most countries (see graph). The main factors that contribute to the competitiveness of nuclear power plants, based on new designs that may be ordered today, include cost-effectiveness of the concepts, and enhanced technical performance such as longer lifetimes, higher energy availability and better fuel utilisation. The advanced light water reactors currently available on the market are designed for 60 years of operation at an average availability factor above 90%. They are designed to make better use of the energy content of natural uranium and to generate some 15% less waste.

Obviously, rising prices of fossil fuels reinforce the competitiveness of nuclear-generated electricity. Furthermore, the pricing of carbon emissions in the costs of fossil-fuel burning, through tradeable permits and taxation for instance, will increase the competitive margin of energy sources that emit no or very little carbon.

While the economic sense of nuclear energy is no longer an issue, financing the building of nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities remains a challenge. Recent decisions in Europe to build new plants suggest greater interest from investors but they remain cautious about the long-term financial risks. To reassure them, governments must at least provide stable regulatory frameworks in the field of nuclear safety and radiation protection, and back this up with clear policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

In parallel with technical improvements, addressing public concerns about nuclear risks is a high priority. Safety is of paramount importance in this regard. The excellent safety records of nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities in operation in OECD countries demonstrate the effectiveness of stringent regulations in place and of the efforts by industry and regulators to implement a robust safety culture. As a result of these efforts and progress in technology, the impacts of nuclear energy facilities on human health and the environment are well below the levels imposed by regulators and accepted by society in general for industrial activities. Going beyond mere compliance, the radiation doses received by workers in nuclear installations have been more than halved over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the strictly monitored radioactive releases surrounding nuclear power plant sites remain extremely low (typically between a tenth and a hundredth of natural background radioactivity), and are decreasing further still.

Another main concern to address is that of waste management and disposal. Although radioactive waste management, including final disposal, does not raise any significant technical or economic problems–it is essential to note in this regard that the cost of waste management and disposal is already integrated in the price paid by consumers of nuclear electricity–establishing repositories to hold all waste types for a considerable time has proven to be a challenge. However, experts agree that the safe disposal of radioactive waste is feasible, with due respect being given to health and environmental regulations protecting present and future generations. Advanced studies and demonstration projects have been carried out on the treatment, packaging and disposal of the waste in deep geological formations. These provide confidence that the successive natural and engineered barriers will satisfactorily isolate waste from the biosphere for as long as its level of radioactivity requires. Several countries, such as Finland, Sweden and the United States, are in the process of developing repositories that should be opened within a decade or so.

A proven case

Today nuclear energy provides nearly one quarter of the electricity consumed in OECD countries and is a daily fact of life in several of them. This has enabled it to become a proven, mature technology benefiting from broad industrial experience–more than 12,000 reactor-years of operation–accumulated mainly in OECD countries. State-of-the-art nuclear energy systems in operation worldwide have demonstrated highly satisfactory technical and economic performance. Moreover, extensive R&D programmes under way in many countries, often as part of international endeavours, aim to make even more progress to enhance safety and proliferation resistance, to reduce uranium consumption and waste and to increase the competitiveness of nuclear energy.

In short, all nuclear energy indicators of safety, reliability, competitiveness and efficient use of natural resources, as well as health and environmental protection, show a continuous trend of improvement. Clearly, nuclear could make a major contribution to diversification, security of energy supply and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective way. Nuclear energy development can become a key part of sustainable energy mixes provided governments, industry and civil society work together to lay out a robust policymaking framework for all options to be assessed and developed according to their respective costs and benefits for society. That includes cooperating multilaterally to ensure the technology does indeed develop to the highest standards possible in the fields of safety and reliability, health and environmental protection, proliferation resistance and physical protection, and economics.

The challenges facing policymakers in the energy field are enormous. Energy efficiency and savings, carbon sequestration, renewable sources and nuclear energy are needed to meet the demand of growing populations and economic development while protecting the environment. We cannot afford to forego any option.

References

NEA (2006), Uranium 2005: Resources, Production and Demand, Paris.

NEA (2006), Advanced Fuel Cycles and Radioactive Waste Management, Paris.

NEA (2006), Forty Years of Uranium Resources, Production and Demand in Perspective: The Red Book Retrospective, Paris.

For more, see the NEA’s web site, www.nea.fr/

©OECD Observer No 258/259, December 2006