Even the most conservative estimates predict at least a doubling of energy usage by the middle of the century. Coupled with concerns about the risk of climate change and the security of energy supply, this anticipated growth is creating a sense of rising expectations for nuclear power.
Innovation will play a key role in determining the extent to which nuclear energy will meet future energy needs. Advanced fuel cycles are already being developed that would, for example, use fissile and fertile materials more efficiently, employ new fuel types and configurations to strengthen proliferation resistance, and apply partitioning and transmutation to mitigate the volume and radio-toxicity of high level and long-lived wastes. Innovation will also be crucial in determining the contribution of nuclear power to ‘energy currencies’ other than electricity, such as hydrogen, desalination and heating.
Innovative thinking is also needed to focus on energy for development. Per capita electricity consumption in Nigeria, which I visited recently, is only around 70 kilowatthours per year — more than 100 times less than the average for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This lack of energy in turn restricts every other aspect of development, from increasing food production to improving healthcare. The traditional approach to nuclear electricity generation has made it an impractical choice for many developing countries. Changing that situation will, once again, require innovation. For example, regional collaboration might be used to address issues like upfront capital costs, infrastructure and workforce needs and electrical grid capacity.
While some of us may be sceptics when it comes to any science that takes such a long time to develop, there is no denying that nuclear fusion promises some welcome characteristics: an inexhaustible source of energy, the inherent safety of a nuclear reaction that cannot be sustained in a non-controlled reaction, and few negative environmental implications. With the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor now expected to go ahead, the scientific community can begin devoting serious attention to this long-term objective worldwide.
Nuclear science is also providing the foundation for the development of advanced materials and new technologies. Techniques are being used for treatments and coatings to improve the corrosion resistance of metal and glass, or to harden surfaces to reduce friction and increase wear resistance. These advanced materials can have many industrial and manufacturing uses. When electrons and ion beams are used in fabricating precision structures with nanometer dimensions, the materials and methods that result could in turn have promising applications in human health, food production and many other technologies to benefit humankind.
In fact, modern technology applications generate enormous demand for such advances. The need for greater vigilance in combating terrorism has added another dimension. Concerted efforts are underway to develop reliable, robust systems for monitoring radiation sources and for enhanced detection of trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials.
The enduring challenge for nuclear operators and regulators is to ensure that nuclear activities worldwide are conducted to the highest levels of safety. A focused commitment is needed to make sure that lessons learned in one country are effectively and thoroughly communicated to all nations, and that these lessons are incorporated into the operational and regulatory practices of all relevant nuclear facilities.
Edited extracts from a speech given by this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, during its general conference in Vienna.