NPT signatories must enable a renewed vision for nuclear, says Bilbao y León

07 May 2021

US President Dwight Eisenhower's 'Atoms for Peace' speech to the UN General Assembly in 1953 is still relevant as the world of today confronts the existential threat of climate change, World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León told delegates at a preparatory event for the Tenth NPT Review Conference that is expected to take place in August. Speaking at the event - titled Industry and Peaceful Applications of Nuclear Technology - Bilbao y León called upon all signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, to support the expansion of civil nuclear power.

"The Non-Proliferation Treaty has been incredibly successful in the military sense, but I think there is still a need to conquer the irrational fear of radiation, which is unfortunately restricting the development of nuclear technology," Bilbao y León said.

"I want to reassure all of you that the global nuclear industry collectively supports the NPT as the cornerstone for the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Nuclear energy today and for more than 80 years is contributing safely and securely to the wellbeing of people throughout the world, and its use can be further expanded to satisfy global energy demand, achieve the very ambitious climate goals that we have set ourselves in the Paris Agreement and, just as importantly, help the world meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals."

The UN agencies and NPT signatories have a key role in the clean energy transition, she said, and called on them to acknowledge that nuclear energy, along with other low-carbon technologies, is "essential to the sound environmental stewardship of our planet and to mitigate the threat from global warming".

"We call on you to pursue efforts to develop the potential of nuclear technology in harmony with the economic welfare of the world through an integrated approach by the various UN agencies and other multilateral organisations, including the international development banks. We call on you to work towards the harmonisation of regulatory frameworks to facilitate the 'internationalisation' of nuclear technology. We call on you to facilitate the transfer of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to all countries as they develop a robust and streamlined regulatory regime that meets, of course, the objectives of the NPT while ensuring the safety and security of commercial and social operations."

A new crossroads

The NPT was conceived when the world was at a crossroads, she said.

"We had two atomic colossi eyeing each other with suspicion, and there were prospects of several more countries developing atomic weapons. Then, with immense vision, General Eisenhower proposed steps in his 'Atoms for Peace' speech, which would eventually lead to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the NPT. The vision was to harness the atom, not for instilling fear, but for improving the economic welfare of the world. In his own words, 'To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds the people and the governments of the East and West'."

The enormity and urgency of the climate change challenge are "staggering", she said, highlighting the fact that the share of fossil fuel electricity generation has hardly changed since 2000. In fact, electricity production from fossil fuels in 2019 was higher than total generation in 2020.

"Today, humanity is also at a crossroads as we face the enormity and urgency of the climate change challenge. Despite large investment in renewable energy sources, the share of low-carbon electricity generated today is essentially the same as it was 20 years ago. At present country commitments and policies do not really lead us to the 1.5 degree-or-less scenario that the IPCC recommends. And the problem will only get worse as the less developed nations continue to increase their demand for energy in an effort to reach the same standard of living as developed nations for all their citizens. This autumn, the United Nations General Assembly will discuss energy for the first time in 40 years. And also this year, nations will get together in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change to consider more ambitious decarbonisation targets and to develop realistic approaches that will get us there. So once again, a bold vision is required."

Need for nuclear

Nuclear energy needs to grow rapidly if the world is to satisfy energy demand, achieve climate targets and meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, she said, noting that the 'middle of the road' scenario of the IPCC's 1.5 degrees special report sees nuclear growing six-fold by 2050, with 2243 GWe of capacity representing 25% of electricity generation.

"The Tenth NPT Review Conference gives us a major opportunity to contribute to addressing this existential crisis. Why? Because the NPT is a paradigm by which countries who foreswear the development of nuclear weapons programmes and meet the commitments of the NPT should have access to the full benefits of the peaceful applications of nuclear technology. And nuclear power is the single most proven, scalable tool that we have today to meet the world's growing energy needs without contributing to climate change."

Nuclear energy is the single largest low-carbon source of electricity in developed countries, she said, and nuclear technologies bring "unmatched benefits".

"First of all, they have a proven track record. Nuclear power plants have operated safely, reliably and cost-effectively all over the world for more than 60 years, and they have done so without the emission of greenhouse gases or any other contaminants, and they have carefully managed the very low volumes of used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste that have been produced since the beginning of the deployment of nuclear power.

"Nuclear power plants produce dependable, 'always on' output that is indispensible for today's society, for all kinds of essential services, such as hospitals, industry and for example this internet which we have been using a lot during this terrible pandemic. Nuclear power plants can also operate flexibly, supporting the deployment of intermittent renewable generation and ensuring a robust and resilient energy system. Nuclear energy is also a cost-effective climate change mitigator."

Extending the operation of the current fleet of nuclear reactors is the single lowest cost form of additional low-carbon generation, she said, and new reactors are competitive with other low-carbon generation sources, particularly when the total costs of the entire system and the value of the avoided emissions are included in the cost of generation.

And nuclear energy can go "well beyond" electricity.

"As the only low-carbon source that can produce electricity and heat, nuclear energy could play an important role decarbonising difficult-to-abate sectors. Nuclear reactors could be used to produce process heat for industrial applications, district heating to condition buildings, fresh water through desalination, or zero-carbon hydrogen and synthetic low-carbon fuels that can help decarbonise the transportation sector," she said.

And nuclear power contributes to almost all of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

"Nuclear energy deployment efficiently promotes national and local economic growth. It provides long-term, high-skilled jobs and has significant multiplier effects in many sectors of the economy. For developing countries, nuclear energy projects can be a catalyst to overall socio-economic development while helping to limit reliance on fossil fuels," she said.

"Zero-carbon 24/7 affordable nuclear power contributes to most of the SDGs and can be essential to meeting the aspirations of individuals in all nations. Better education, access to stable jobs, nutritious diets, better healthcare and access to the cultural and leisure activities that truly enable a higher quality of living. In particular, this increased access to affordable and reliable energy helps enhance labour emancipation and reduce the abundance of menial jobs which disproportionally affects women. More free time and access to education will give women all over the world equal opportunities to contribute to society at all levels."

Excitement about innovation

The global nuclear power industry innovates, as it has throughout its 60-year history, she said. There are 54 nuclear reactors under construction all over the world and there is "a lot of excitement" about new technologies, such as small modular reactors, micro-reactors and advanced reactors.

"These technologies not only can be more affordable but they are also highly customisable to many specialised markets and applications, which opens new opportunities to integrate dispatchable nuclear power in the increasingly distributed and highly coupled energy systems of the future. It is absolutely indispensable to accelerate the deployment of nuclear power if we are to satisfy global energy demand, if we are to achieve the very ambitious climate targets that we have set ourselves and to help the world, the entire world, to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Government leadership and government support are needed to instil confidence in nuclear technology and to incentivise long-term planning and private investment into these technologies."

Examples of recent innovations that she highlighted were: the APR-1400 at Shin Kori unit 4 in South Korea; the APR-1400 at Barakah unit 1 in the UAE; the Hualong One at Fuqing unit 5 in China; the KLT-40S for Akademik Lomonosov in Russia; the VVER V-491 at Ostrovets unit 1 in Belarus; NuScale's design-licensed 77 MWe PWR in the USA; the 2x110 MWe HTR-PM that is under commissioning in China; Terrestrial Energy's 190 MWe IMSR that is under development in Canada, the UK and the USA; GE Hitachi's BWRX300 that is under review in the USA; and the Aurora/Oklo 1.5 MWe Heatpipe FNR that is under review in the USA.

A recording of the 30 April event is here.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News