UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Nuclear energy is undergoing a worldwide renaissance, but poor nations yearning to develop need to realize that it is no panacea to profound poverty, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Monday.
After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, many governments questioned the value of nuclear power. Some European countries, like Austria and Germany, decided to wean themselves off nuclear energy.
But issues like global warming and the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels have brought the nuclear reactor, which emits virtually no “greenhouse gases”, back into vogue.
According to Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize-laureate head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, many developing states see atomic energy as a key source of the power they need to combat poverty.
“It could be part of the energy mix in many of the large developing countries, but I always continue to lower expectations,” he told Reuters in an interview after addressing the U.N. General Assembly.
“It is not a panacea by itself and many countries will have to understand that it will take 10 to 15 years before they can use nuclear (power),” he said. “They’ll have to prove it’s economically competitive, a good part of the energy mix.”
While nuclear power plants can bring many benefits, they are expensive to build, and require strict adherence to safety and security requirements, ElBaradei said.
“There’s a lot of over-expectation,” he said. “We think everybody has the right to use it but there are certain parameters you have to fulfill.”
There is a downside to the nuclear renaissance — the more nuclear material there is worldwide, the greater the risk that some of it could be diverted to make nuclear weapons, he said in his speech to the General Assembly.
“Countries that master uranium enrichment and plutonium separation become de facto nuclear weapons-capable states,” he said. For this reason, he said it was time to consider creating multinational nuclear fuel centers to ensure all countries have access to atomic fuel while minimizing proliferation risks.
Western countries suspect Iran wants enrichment to produce fuel for atom bombs. Tehran denies the charge but has rejected U.N. Security Council demands that it halt enrichment work.
Russia offered to host an enrichment joint-venture with Iran on Russian territory. Tehran never officially responded but made clear it wanted to enrich uranium on Iranian soil.
In the interview, ElBaradei said the number of nuclear reactors in the world would double in coming decades to between 850 and 900, though the proportion of nuclear energy to other power sources would remain steady at the present 14 percent.
“It will help with climate change, energy independence, fluctuation in prices, but one has to take it in perspective.”
In his speech, ElBaradei said there was a tremendous energy imbalance between the developed and developing worlds.
For example, he said the developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) consume on average 170 times more power than African states.
This is why many nations are eager to get nuclear energy, he said.
Nuclear plant technology is much safer than it was at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. But this does not mean the risks associated with reactors had vanished, ElBaradei said.
“Vulnerabilities remain. We can never be complacent about safety. A single nuclear accident anywhere in the world could undermine the future of nuclear energy everywhere,” he said.
Editing by Philip Barbara