The nuclear energy industry is at “a new crossroads” that could mark the start of a new renaissance or a slow decline as existing nuclear reactors are gradually retired, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has said.
In the second edition of a publication called ‘Nuclear Energy Today’ the Paris-based agency says there are “fundamental reasons” to support nuclear energy – which provides around 14 percent of the world’s electricity – including its cost competitiveness, security of supply and the pace of technological development.
In the end, political decision-makers wishing to use nuclear energy must engage in public dialogue, put in place and enforce regulatory and institutional frameworks, and make a long-term commitment to policies that minimise the investment risk for new build, the report concludes.
It says: “The further development of nuclear energy depends on these criteria being met”. If these criteria are met nuclear energy can provide large amounts of affordable electricity while contributing to a reduction of greenhouse gases from the power sector.
The report says nuclear technology has “evolved continuously and improved from generation to generation”. It says the next generation of reactors might also include small modular designs suitable for small electric grids, as well as designs able to produce large quantities of electricity with a higher efficiency than today’s reactors.
The report says generating nuclear electricity is “generally cost-competitive, even in liberalised markets”, but investors also “face the challenge” of financing the large upfront construction costs while ensuring the long-term stability and political commitment needed to ensure adequate returns on investment over several decades of operation.
Nuclear energy as part of a diversified energy mix can “significantly improve” security of energy supply because available uranium resources are sufficient to power fission rectors “throughout the 21st century at least”, the report says.
Nuclear energy remains “a controversial technology”, characterised by public concern over safety, the issues of waste management and the risk of proliferation. However, the report says the technical issues of the management of high-level radioactive waste have been solved with deep geological disposal projects under way in several countries.
Safety remains a priority for the industry and government, but lessons learned from previous accidents and the sharing of experiences and best practises will lead to higher levels of safety, the report says.
It says: “A framework of national laws and international agreements governs virtually all aspects of the use of nuclear energy and efficiently addresses the need for safeguards against the misuse of nuclear technology and materials.”