Nuclear industry faces wake-up call, says IAEA's Chudakov

14 September 2018

The future of nuclear energy depends on the industry’s readiness to address the seven factors influencing its prospects, the deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told delegates at the World Nuclear Association Symposium 2018 held in London last week.

Chudakov speaking last week (Image: World Nuclear Association)

Mikhail Chudakov, who is also head of the Vienna-based organisation’s nuclear energy department, said the industry needs to change public acceptance of nuclear power to public demand for this safe, reliable, sustainable and low-carbon source of electricity.

In his presentation titled Nuclear Energy: Where are we headed? Chudakov summarised the need for action.

“We know the challenges: World energy consumption is expected to grow at an annual growth rate of about 1%, but electricity consumption will grow at a higher rate of about 2.5% per year up to 2030 and around 2% thereafter,” he said. “With virtually no greenhouse gas emissions during operation, nuclear power can have an important role to play in achieving [the United Nation's] Sustainable Development Goals, meeting the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.”

But limiting temperature increases to the 2 Degree Scenario is not easy, he said, because today 70% of the world’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. But by 2050, around 80% of electricity will need to be low carbon, he added. This scenario already includes “significant scaling” of all clean, low-carbon technologies.

“If nuclear power deployment doesn’t grow in line with this scenario, the other technologies will not make up the gap. And we will not meet our climate targets that are critical to life on this planet,” he said.


The IAEA’s latest projections for global installed nuclear power capacity in the ‘high case’ indicate an increase from 2017 levels by 30% in 2030 and by 90% in 2050, he noted. However, in the low projection, world nuclear electrical generating capacity is projected to gradually decline until 2040 and then rebound to the 2030 level by 2050. The share of nuclear electrical generating capacity in the world total will be about 3% in the low case and about 6% in the high case by the middle of the century.

“This year’s projection has not been announced yet, but it is even worse: 2.8% and 5.6%, respectively,” Chudakov said.

Referring to the nuclear industry’s Harmony goal to add 1000 GWe of new installed capacity by 2050, with nuclear accounting for 25% of global electricity consumption, he said: “Last year’s high case was 700 GWe. Where is the 1000 GWe plus of new capacity? We can’t see it. Where is our 25% of electricity production by 2050? We are already losing the battle and we will be responsible for this.” He added: “This should be a big wake up call for all of us.”

In notes that accompanied his presentation, Chudakov said the decline compared to previous projections is mainly owing to “the early retirement or lack of interest in extending the operating life of nuclear power plants in some countries, due to the reduced competitiveness of nuclear power in the short run and nuclear policies in several countries following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011”. His notes added: “We are still looking into a heavy new build schedule to replace the large figure of capacity that will go away due to retiring reactors.”

Seven factors

Chudakov outlined the seven influences he sees on the future of nuclear power: safety; funding and financing; electricity markets and nuclear policies; innovation (advanced reactors and fuel cycles); waste management; capacity building; and public acceptance.

He said he wanted to highlight the way these factors will determine whether future developments will be closer to the IAEA’s low or high projections.

“Of course, we can stop talking about safety, but we can’t prevent people asking us about safety and they have the right to. The safety performance of nuclear installations is crucial to the future of nuclear power, as a strong safety record is essential for its public acceptance,” he said.

Ways to support the safety factor include, he said: the IAEA’s review missions which help improve harmonisation across its 170 Member States; the sharing of operational experience which provides more open access to information; emergency preparedness policies which provide for better exchange of technical information; severe accident management drills that make more use of IAEA and other international experience; and management and safety culture which works best through multilateral cooperation.

“The more we share our operating experience, the better our resilience to events will become. Fukushima has demonstrated to us that we need to be joined-up when responding to significant events in our industry, we can do this by improving our exchange of technical information around the plants, but we need to continue identifying areas where we all have to work harder,” he said.

There are funding needs that arise during the various phases of embarking on or expanding a country’s nuclear power programme, he said, which include establishing and maintaining a national regulatory body; and establishing funding mechanisms to meet the ‘back-end liabilities’ of decommissioning and waste management.

The decline of gas prices, the rapid deployment of large amounts of renewable energy, the shifting of electricity demand from OECD to non-OECD countries, particularly in Asia, and the absence of a meaningful CO2 price signal, are significantly influencing nuclear growth, he said.

“Yes, financing new nuclear build is challenging, but new ways of thinking have produced new ways of finding money. We see this in Turkey, in Finland, in the UAE, in the UK. But the underlying question is: How can governments create more enabling conditions so that nuclear can be more affordable?

The answer to this question is closely linked to electricity markets and nuclear policies, he said. Support needs to be given to newcomers to nuclear power and harmonised support to new operators, he said. The management of a nuclear power plant involves, after all, cooperative work throughout the more than 60 years of its operation, he added.

On innovation, he said the industry had demonstrated progress in the development and implementation of high-level waste repositories that will have a “profound impact” on the political and public acceptance of nuclear power. Acquiring and retaining skilled personnel to ensure a competent workforce for all phases of a nuclear facility’s life cycle are among the biggest challenges for the nuclear community, he added.

“When the Members States see nuclear as a key contributor to their achievement of sustainable development and climate mitigation targets, the enabling conditions and policies will also change,” he said. There are two key things the industry must do, he added. The first of these is maintaining the current fleet - the “workhorse of low-carbon energy production” - for as long as safely possible.

“This will take us to the 2050s,” he said. “And then, the innovative systems that are now under development kick in. Fast reactors, high temperature gas-cooled reactors, small and medium sized or modular reactors, and especially coupling them with other industrial purposes (cogeneration) will ensure that we are indeed talking about a sustainable energy system.”

Radioactive waste management practice must provide public reassurance that the industry has managed programmes for the whole lifecycle, he said. There is great potential for cooperation, he added, in the integrated review service for radioactive waste and used fuel management, decommissioning and remediation programmes, referred to as Artemis. Artemis missions provide independent expert opinion and advice, drawn from an international team of specialists convened by the IAEA. Reviews are based on the IAEA safety standards and technical guidance, as well as international good practices.

In order to build capacity, there is a need, he said, for the development of human resources in the industry for both existing operators and the new generation.

“We need to consider new ways of learning and development for our workforce, alongside effective education, training and knowledge management to ensure we equip our people for the future,” he said.

Demand for nuclear

Public acceptance remains a key factor for the future of nuclear power, he said, and largely depends on public perception of the benefits and risks associated with this form of power generation, but also of the benefits and risks of non-nuclear alternatives.

All stakeholders ought to reinforce the social and economic benefits of nuclear power.

“We need to explain and to start education at all levels, from kindergarten, school and university, to parliament and ministers. We should not be ashamed to talk about nuclear energy; we are always defending ourselves, but it’s time to start attacking - to actively explain and promote nuclear power,” he said.

“Public opinion about the future of nuclear power is perhaps the most important variable that will determine whether nuclear power will help us meet our development and climate goals, or whether we will fail. We will greatly improve our chances for success if our efforts can shift the paradigm from gaining public acceptance of nuclear power to generating well-informed public demand for nuclear power. We must reinforce the benefits of nuclear power. This is a big, but a vitally important task and it will require enhanced international cooperation.

“Each of you has a role to play. We need you to be the drivers.”

Researched and written by World Nuclear News