Nuclear Energy Agency

Towards the next half-century

The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) is 50 years old. It predates the actual OECD itself, having started out in 1958 as a division of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation. It has since grown to become a global body spanning four continents. What does its future hold?

The NEA is a highly specialised agency which has been devoted to developing and maintaining international co-operation in the scientific, technological and legal bases required for the safe, environmentally friendly and economical use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.If the NEA did not exist today, countries with nuclear power would be looking for ways to create something like it. For these countries who believe that nuclear energy is an appropriate component of an effective energy mix, the NEA is the right place for countries to focus together on how to make nuclear energy safer, more economical and more effective. Not all countries believe that nuclear power is an appropriate path to energy security, primarily for environmental and waste management reasons. Yet even some of these countries are NEA members, as they too believe they have an interest in making nuclear power as safe and reliable as possible.Over the years, the NEA and its larger Vienna-based counterpart, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which was founded in 1957, have worked together to make the potential benefits of nuclear energy better serve mankind. The IAEA and NEA missions are complementary, with the NEA focusing on improving the capability and safety of developed nuclear energy programmes among its members, while also looking to co-operate with other countries who are launching programmes of their own.What are the challenges of the next 50 years? These can best be summed up with a brief set of personal observations, all of which suggest that the NEA can only grow in importance:First, there is going to be an expansion of nuclear power in developed and developing countries alike.Second, for developing countries, building infrastructure–including regulatory infrastructure–will be key.Third, the NEA and the IAEA have complementary roles which are critical in making nuclear power safer, more effective and more economical.Fourth, the IAEA also has the critical non-proliferation role of applying IAEA safeguards.Fifth, the phrase “business as usual” is not acceptable for dealing with growth in greenhouse gas emissions.Sixth, predictions of sharply rising demand for electricity almost certainly call for large increases in base load generation. Recession may slow the growth of demand for power but only for a limited time.Seventh, fossil fuels are no longer considered the right way to provide large increases in base load electrical generation, both because of emissions and finite supply. Eighth, renewables (wind, solar) may be helpful at the local level and may become cost effective in small quantities, but in my judgement it’s hard to visualise renewables providing power in the 1,000–1,600 MWe range and that’s what nuclear power can do.Finally, the fact that nuclear power is emissions free makes it a useful option for meeting a growing need for electricity while attempting to stabilise or reduce the greenhouse gas burden on the atmosphere. I believe that we need ambitious nuclear power programmes. But new programmes and expansion of existing programmes are likely to require strong government support, especially given present financial conditions.Consider the fact that construction costs have sky-rocketed. A few months ago, the CEO of an American company that operated nuclear reactors remarked that they were about to take a decision on building two new nuclear reactors which at that time was in the neighbourhood of US$10-12 billion. Not long ago, a single reactor cost closer to $2 billion. For the CEO it was a particularly difficult decision, because he said that the entire company was only worth $27 billion. Rolling the dice on a bet of $10-12 billion was a sure way to go bankrupt if something went seriously wrong.Waste management is an issue which we must still face, though efforts are being made to solve that problem. In my judgement the waste management issue is solvable, if not immediately then soon.The world 100 years from now is not going to be just like today except with different clothing styles, cars with better mileage, and faster airplanes. 2108 is going to be as different from today technologically as we are from 1908. The NEA is 50 years old. Look at the technology of 1950 compared with the technology of today. Given the curve of technological development, the world of 2058, just 50 years from now, is going to be just as different from today as we are from 1950 or 1958.There is also an ongoing discussion about whether countries could jointly pursue high-level waste disposal. It is a sensitive debate which will likely intensify as the nuclear industry expands, and this is the kind of issue which the NEA can help clarify with its dispassionate data and expertise.In the meantime, governments will need to continue building infrastructure, to regulate safety and to support and help finance reactor construction. In this rapidly globalising world of the 21st century, governments must expect the NEA to make the same invaluable contribution to nuclear energy over the next 50 years as it has in the last half century. I am sure that with the right support, the Agency can help ensure that the “expansion phase” of nuclear energy in the years ahead is the safest, most reliable and most successful phase in nuclear energy’s history.References ©OECD Observer No 270/271 December 2008-January 2009

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