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BEIJING (Reuters) - The global financial crisis is unlikely to deter growing long-term demand for new nuclear power plants, international atomic agency officials said on Sunday, ahead of a conference to discuss the future of atomic power.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials and national and international energy representatives are gathering in Beijing to discuss prospects for atomic power during a global slowdown, climate change and energy worries, and tensions over the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
Thierry Dujardin, a deputy director of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, said that although the financial crisis was making it more difficult to fund some proposed nuclear power plants, longer-term worries about energy security and global warming were likely to buffer the impact of the crisis on the sector.
"In the short term, it's obvious that it will be more difficult to find the funding for new investments, heavy investment, in energy infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants," Dujardin told a news conference.
"There is a chance that nuclear energy as such will not be so strongly impacted by the current economic crisis, because the need for energy will be there."
Dong Batong, of the China's atomic energy industry association, said his country was committed to dramatically expanding nuclear power, despite the slowdown in growth.
"We've made nuclear power an important measure for stimulating domestic demand," Dong told the news conference, noting that dozens of new nuclear units are being built or planned across the country.
Nuclear power provides 14 percent of global electricity supplies, according to the Vienna-based IAEA, and that proportion is set to grow as nations seek to contain fuel bills and the greenhouse gas emissions dangerously warming the planet.
Much of the expected expansion is in Asia.
As of the end of August 2008, China topped the list of countries with nuclear power plants under construction, with 5,220 megawatts (MW), followed by India at 2,910 MW and South Korea at 2,880 MW, according to the International Energy Agency.
But the ambitious plans for nuclear power growth across the developing world also risk straining safety standards and safeguards against weapons proliferation.
Yuri Sokolov, deputy director-general of the IAEA, said governments looking to expand nuclear energy had to ensure regulators were backed by effective legislation and properly trained staff.
But even North Korea, facing international censure for recently launching a long-range rocket and abandoning nuclear disarmament talks, has the right to nuclear power stations, said Sokolov.
"Each country is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program," he said, calling North Korea a "difficult situation."
"If it's ready to cooperate with the international community, I think that the international community will be able to provide the support for civil nuclear power development in North Korea."
North Korea renounced its membership of the IAEA years ago, and last week expelled IAEA officials who had been invited back to monitor a shuttered nuclear complex that Pyongyang has said it will restart.
The director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, will give an opening speech to the nuclear energy meeting on Monday.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Vienna; Editing by Ken Wills