Nuclear Power in the Balance

VIENNA – I am often asked if nuclear power is safe. My standard answer is: “Yes – as safe as air travel.” Plane crashes do occur, but highly effective safety systems ensure that they are extremely rare – so rare that most of us board airplanes without worrying that we might not reach our destination. The same is true of nuclear power, although there are always concerns that a severe accident could have major human and environmental consequences.

The question is of more than merely academic interest. The future of nuclear power will be one of the key issues on the table at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. Global nuclear power capacity could double in the next 20 years. Thirty countries already use nuclear power and many of them, including China, Russia, and India, plan major expansions in their existing programs. Around 60 other countries – most of them in the developing world – have informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that they are interested in introducing nuclear power.

Nuclear power has obvious attractions for both rich and poor countries. The developing world desperately needs access to electricity to help lift people out of poverty and ensure sustainable development. In some African countries, electricity consumption per capita is around 50 kilowatt-hours per year, compared with an average of 8,600 kilowatt-hours in the OECD countries.

All countries are concerned about security of energy supplies as reserves of fossil fuels dwindle, as well as about the sometimes wild fluctuations in the price of oil, coal, and gas. Climate change is also a growing concern. Nuclear power is not a panacea for all of the world’s energy problems, but it will continue to be part of the global energy mix for the foreseeable future.