Thursday, 4 February 2010

Time to Embrace the Nuclear Option

Nuclear power has the potential to help solve the problems of climate change and energy security, writes Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska
The World Economic Forum rightly prides itself on innovative thinking about global problems. But the solution to the challenges of energy security and cutting carbon emissions lies, I believe, in a technology celebrating its 50th anniversary.
It is 50 years since the first commercial nuclear power plants began to generate electricity. Even in the dark days of the Cold War, these reactors, in France and the U.S., were seen as vital to the world's future. They were expected to mark the beginning of a new peaceful atomic age that would help meet our energy needs.

Nuclear power now generates 15% of the world's electricity. But a combination of alternative and plentiful energy sources, high costs, the impact of the Chernobyl disaster as well as scare campaigns has meant nuclear power has failed to live up to its pioneers' loftiest ambitions.
Oil is, however, no longer cheap or plentiful. There are serious worries about future supplies. At the same time, demand for energy continues to accelerate to support the growth of developing economies. Climate change caused by emissions from fossil fuels poses a threat to our quality of life. It is no surprise that the balance is tipping back in favor of nuclear power.
The International Atomic Energy Agency expects at least 70 new plants to be opened within the next 15 years. This could result in a doubling of the amount of electricity produced by nuclear plants.
I believe, however, that nuclear power offers far greater potential than this. It can help power economic growth and drive the switch to a low-carbon future. But we will only reap the full benefits if we focus on lifting the barriers that are currently preventing its expansion.
Governments must increase support for their own nuclear industries. More bilateral and international effort is needed to help introduce the industry to new countries—and particularly the energy-poor developing world.
The small- and medium-sized reactors now in development could help meet energy needs in the more remote areas of the world. They don't run on fossil fuels so their location isn't constrained by access to oil, gas or coal. Nor do they require the expensive infrastructure of national electricity grids.
These new reactors are a further improvement on everything we have learned about reliable, safe and value-for-money power generation. They remove safety problems associated with operator error and equipment failure. Their working lives will be much longer than past reactors thanks to advances in fuel technology, coolants and metal alloys. We also stand on the edge of a breakthrough with new fast reactors that can reuse fuel and leave little waste.
Modern reactors will be cheaper to run and with a safety record which can't be beaten. They will also be cheaper to build. There are reactors in development that could be cost competitive with natural gas and coal.
With the right help, we could see nuclear power at last living up to the hopes of its pioneers 50 years ago. But this requires governments to act rather than just talk about their determination to meet the important and interlinked challenges of energy security and climate change.
The continuing global economic crisis offers new opportunities to meet these goals in a way that will help stimulate high-tech research and manufacturing. Governments should make new nuclear-power projects central to their economic- stimulus packages.
We also need increased cooperation at a bilateral and international level to help expand nuclear power to new countries. At the moment the plans for new reactors are concentrated in those countries that already have civilian nuclear programs, predominantly in Asia. Electricity generation from nuclear power in China and India is projected to grow at an average annual rate of around 9%.
But unless we help new countries join the club, we will fail to see nuclear power helping to tackle global poverty and support development. This is not just about sharing expertise and technology and providing funding. Equally important is help in drawing up the right regulatory framework and support for training.
At an international level we need to think innovatively about new safeguards to counter proliferation fears. We should work swiftly to agree and implement a multilateral fuel bank under IAEA auspices. This would guarantee a supply of nuclear fuel for states that agree not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing activities of their own. This could run alongside steps to standardize technology and equipment and the handling and transportation rules for nuclear material.
If we can get these conditions right, we can accelerate the expansion of civil nuclear power for the good of our economies and our environment. It is a goal which needs international organizations, governments, businesses and the scientific community to work together to ease concerns and reap the maximum benefits. But it is a goal which, I strongly believe, is both achievable and in all our interests.
Mr. Deripaska is the chief executive of Basic Element, a Moscow-based industrial holding company.