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A combination of factors appears to be pushing the risk-benefit balance back into nuclear’s favour as an energy option for developing countries. SciDev.Net readers are invited to comment.
Shortly before last week’s summit meeting in Russia, the media suggested the G8 nations would endorse a global plan to promote nuclear energy, on the grounds that it is needed to meet energy demands in developed and developing countries alike.
The reports quoted a late draft of a position paper on energy security submitted to the summit. This is said to have proposed that developing countries participate in a global "shared nuclear energy system" as "a viable option for reducing their energy poverty and bridging the energy gap." Among its specific recommendations was a call to build a new generation of so-called fast neutron breeder reactors, able to generate (or ‘breed’) their own plutonium supply from natural uranium.
Predictably, these reports provoked strong opposition. Critics repeated their concern that nuclear power is simply too dangerous — a poignant argument in the country where the world’s worst nuclear accident, the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, happened exactly 20 years ago.
Governments that share these concerns, such as Germany and Italy, appear to have won the day in St Petersburg. Although other leaders may have supported the draft position paper, there was no mention of a global nuclear energy plan in the summit’s final documents.
Nevertheless, two decades after the Chernobyl accident made nuclear energy a pariah in much of the international development community, the arguments about its exclusion are being revisited.
Several factors now favour nuclear energy, in both the developed and the developing world. One is that whatever their attraction, renewable energy sources, such as biogas or even solar, are unlikely to meet the energy demands of the world’s rapidly growing urban population.
According to one estimate, the number of people living in cities may double to almost 7.5 billion between now and 2050, while the rural population could fall from 3 to 2.5 billion. Alternative, renewable fuels are unlikely to be able to cope with the strain this will put on centralised energy systems.
The second major factor is the need to tackle climate change. The only realistic chance of slowing global warming is to drastically reduce carbon emissions. As the nuclear industry has been pointing out for several years, nuclear energy is an obvious way to do this.
In the long-term, the world needs to turn towards low-energy economies based on renewable energy such as wind, biomass and solar energy, and perhaps with the addition of fusion energy, if that can be made safe and economic. But too rapid a transition could bring energy shortages that disrupt industry and have a devastating social impact.
This prediction is behind the UK government’s new energy policy paper, published last week. The paper concludes that expanding nuclear energy is an essential component of any strategy capable of combating global warming while continuing to meet the country’s energy needs.
A third factor is the evolution of nuclear technology itself. No one is claiming that nuclear power is 100 per cent safe. But new technological advances and new reactor designs have both reduced the likelihood of accidents and bolstered our ability to deal with any that do occur.
None of this is reason for complacency about the dangers of nuclear energy. Many questions remain over how to secure its benefits while reducing its risks to a socially acceptable level.
Perhaps most importantly, the international community must ensure that nuclear material is not diverted towards military ends.
Iran’s continued determination to reprocess nuclear fuel — a step towards constructing nuclear weapons — makes the issue more pertinent (see Iran’s nuclear standoff: we need a peaceful solution).
The G8 reinforced the importance of nuclear non-proliferation policies. But countries that already possess large nuclear arsenals have failed to convince sceptics that they are reining in their nuclear plans. And the perception that nuclear weapons are restricted to a rich man’s club makes it difficult to persuade other countries to relinquish their own ambitions.
Another question is whether radioactive waste can be disposed of safely. But this issue has been closely studied for many years, and although the perfect solution has yet to be found, several viable alternatives, such as deep storage, are now available.
Underlying the whole nuclear debate, even in the civilian domain, is a concern that those promoting nuclear energy for the developing world are doing so primarily for their own economic and political reasons, rather than a genuine commitment to meet the needs of developing country as those countries perceive them.
As long as nuclear power is seen as a device by which the technologically powerful can control and exploit those who lack such power, the nuclear debate will be riddled with distrust.
For example, president Putin’s proposal made earlier this year for floating nuclear power stations to meet developing country needs is widely seen as motivated by a desire to exploit his country’s nuclear expertise, and in so doing, to extend its international influence.
But where nuclear technology is integrated into energy policies that are driven by actual needs, and where these policies make appropriate use of a wide range of energy sources, including renewables, there is no inherent reason why developing countries should exclude nuclear from their choices.
Just one of many options
The arguments for bringing nuclear energy in from the cold have become powerful. Technical factors, such as future energy demand, the problems of global warming, and the increased safety of new nuclear technologies, appear to be pushing the risk-benefit balance back into nuclear’s favour.
But the social and political challenges remain, and these will not be solved by focusing on nuclear energy alone. While there is no reason for excluding nuclear technology, it’s also not the only solution. Each energy technology should be assessed on its own merits.
Developing countries need to build skills and expertise in a range of energy technologies so they can choose which best addresses their needs. Countries that develop this capacity will be best placed to meet their own energy needs on their own terms.
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