Is nuclear energy back?

“Nuclear Power for the 21st Century”, international ministerial conference held in Paris, 21-22 March 2005
OECD Observer

A decade ago, even thinking about expanding nuclear energy was almost taboo in some OECD countries, but this may now be changing. For Luis Echávarri, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), those taboos are now being challenged as governments and people everywhere seem ready to openly discuss the potential of the nuclear option.

There are two simple reasons for this: the high price of oil and climate change. Also, nuclear technology has moved on, with new generations coming on stream, and with it, confidence seems to be rising. Little wonder that, today, governments, investors and the wider public are taking another hard look at the nuclear option.

A sign of this renewed interest was in evidence when ministers, high-ranking officials and experts from 74 countries and 10 international organisations gathered at a major conference in Paris in March under the rather bold banner, “Nuclear Power for the 21st Century”. The conference was organised by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in co-operation with the OECD and the NEA, and was hosted by the French government. The aim was to examine and analyse the potential contribution of this energy source to meeting future energy needs in light of economic, social and environmental concerns.

The fact that the conference was hosted by France should not be a surprise, as some 80% of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear energy. The French are understandably keen to promote the technology’s potential as a secure source of energy in the years ahead. But though France can take a lead, it is not alone. Already 24% of OECD electricity comes from nuclear energy, and there are investment plans in other countries such as Finland, Japan and Korea.

Nuclear energy has some undoubted attractions, the conference agreed. It does not emit CO2, and so does not contribute to climate change. And it offers a relatively secure energy supply compared with oil and gas, both economically and geopolitically. The price of uranium, though rising, has a limited impact on final energy costs, and the world’s main uranium producers are Australia and Canada, both OECD countries.

There are challenges, though, and two stood out at the conference. Disposing of high-level waste was one, and even if progress is being made, non-nuclear countries in particular see overcoming this issue as an important test of the technology’s attractiveness. The NEA’s own membership includes several countries that either have no nuclear power and are still against having it, or decided to phase out nuclear energy.

All participants were united on the second main concern: ensuring that the technology and nuclear material do not fall into the wrong hands. Despite these reservations, many non-OECD countries attending the conference expressed a strong interest in investing in nuclear energy, particularly in Asia, but also in Africa. While international expansion might make the job of non-proliferation more important, it reflects a growing confidence in an energy technology whose time may finally have come.

References

A full communiqué of the Paris conference can be read at www.nea.fr, Press Room.

For more information, contact the NEA head of External Relations and Public Affairs, Karen Daifuku or email observer@oecd.org.

©OECD Observer No 249, May 2005




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