OECD Head Sees Nuclear Power As the Future

Secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development offers four point checklist to ensuring safe development of nuclear power.

Published: 22-Mar-2005

Global energy demand is rising dramatically, particularly in developing countries. Over the next few years, China and India will develop significant nuclear capacity. Smaller developing countries will follow suit. They have to, if they are to respond to the energy needs of their citizens.

Certainly, biomass, wind power, hydro power and solar panels can help. But the contribution of these sources of energy to the world's energy needs is predicted to remain modest: 14 percent at most. Nuclear is at present the only viable proven technology that can meet rising energy demand without producing the greenhouse gases that threaten the future of our planet. What must governments do to make the nuclear option possible?

First and foremost, they need to fight and win a psychological war. Despite its good safety record, nuclear energy today is the victim of fears promoted by its opponents. For it to occupy the place that it should - and, judging by long-term forecasts of energy needs, must - in the global energy mix, governments need to turn the tide of public opinion. If they can't, they must take responsibility for sending global warming into overdrive.

Here is a four-point checklist for action.

First, governments must enforce international agreements banning the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, and ensure that all countries comply. Let's keep it clear: We want atoms for peace, not for war.

Second, they should appoint rotating international teams of experts to monitor and audit the running and maintenance of all nuclear facilities. Governments have an obligation to ensure public safety, and this concerns both the operation of nuclear power stations and the disposal of nuclear waste. Nuclear risks are international in scope, as Chernobyl tragically demonstrated, so the solutions, too, must be international. Monitoring should take place under the supervision and authority of an international organization that is credible and above suspicion.

Third, credible advocates of nuclear energy must be encouraged to present reliable, scientific and fact-based evidence on operational safety, nonproliferation and nuclear waste disposal in a neutral, transparent and accountable manner.

Scientists like Burton Richter and James Lovelock are already doing this, but there need to be more such people, and they must be - and be seen to be - independent of political affiliations and influence. They must come from outside the nuclear industry, and their word must be above all reasonable suspicion and doubt.

Finally, the world's most developed countries must do whatever is needed to ensure that everyone on this planet benefits from advances in nuclear technology. That means providing both funds and know-how for investments and research and development, especially to the developing world. It also means finding a satisfactory way of addressing the issue of waste disposal.

The best way to allay public anxiety is to give specific examples of what is and can be done. Here, the approach of Finland is exemplary. Unlike some other developed nations, Finland does not export nuclear technology, so it has no direct commercial interest in its promotion. And yet, it is expanding its nuclear capacity, in a program that has widespread public support.

Finland's response to the disposal challenge is to store nuclear waste underground in an appropriate geological formation, which has the capacity to take approximately a century's' worth of waste. After that 100 years, under present plans, the facility will be sealed. But if between now and then technological advances have produced a better solution - which seems highly likely - the waste can be salvaged and recycled. Human ingenuity will have found a better way forward.

No energy source is totally free from risk. Policy choices must be based on analysis of the risks and benefits. Between 1918 and 1965, 42 major dam failures caused substantial loss of life.

Did we stop building dams as a result? Did we abandon coal because of the high risks associated with coal mining? In both cases, the answer is no. What we did was to work at making technologies more reliable and safety measures stricter. That's what is needed for nuclear energy as well.

In volume terms, the amount of waste produced by today's nuclear industry is small. Properly reprocessed, a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant produces only five cubic meters of high-level waste per year. The volume of high-level nuclear waste generated each year in Europe, totaling 500 cubic meters, is a minute 0.005 percent of total toxic industrial waste. Human ingenuity can find a solution to the challenge of disposing of it.

The future of energy is not the future of any one part of the globe: It is the future of the fragile planet Earth. To safeguard our planet, we must mobilize expertise and resources in support of accelerated energy research.

Nuclear is one of many options, but it is the one with the greatest promise at the moment. Our responsibility is to ensure that our planet survives in a condition hospitable to human life. That, and not a predetermined refusal to consider viable alternatives, must be our promise to future generations.

(Donald J. Johnston is secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

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