OECD needs new approach to nuclear energy

1 February 1998

Nuclear energy is just another way of making electricity and needs to be properly integrated into the broader energy context by the OECD! This is the essential message sent to Donald Johnston, the Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, by a special High Level Advisory Group he set up last year to advise him on the future of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). Take away the NEA’s role as a promoter of nuclear energy, but keep its expertise and make sure it contributes to the work of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD’s Environment Directorate are key recommendations.

The group was led by Adolph Birkhofer, Germany’s nuclear safety supremo, and included Derek Pooley, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority until recently, with six other members from the USA, Japan, France, Canada, Sweden and Switzerland. Their report (Nuclear Energy in the OECD) was published on 29 January. It argues that prudence requires OECD member countries to make sure they have a range of non-fossil options for making electricity in the future. Natural gas is currently cheap and an excellent way of making electricity in many OECD countries, but demand for it is growing very fast, driven not least by rapid economic growth in poor but large countries, eg China, India, Brazil, Indonesia etc. Climate change caused by CO2 production is also a concern which may grow. For one or both of these reasons, fossil electricity generation may just not be sustainable.

Nuclear energy has traditionally been covered separately from other energy sources in the OECD, through its Nuclear Energy Agency which is charged with promoting nuclear power. This has never been very effective and in recent years has been counterproductive. The public concern or hostility to nuclear power in some OECD countries and the reliance on it in others has made nuclear energy a contentious issue in the OECD. It and the IEA have preferred to leave nuclear matters to the NEA which has (correctly) been seen as partisan but has had little influence.

Stop behaving in OECD as if nuclear power doesn’t exist says Birkhofer’s group. Put it on the playing field alongside other, non-fossil ways of generating and get the OECD/IEA to develop an agreed view of if and how it should be used in the future. Use the NEA’s resources and expertise to help the OECD “provide its members with a consistent and balanced view, based on facts, of the economic potential, safety and sustainability of nuclear energy.” OECD countries own 80% of the worlds nuclear generating capacity and depend on nuclear energy for 24% of their electricity. If pressure to limit fossil fuel burn does increase, then the developing world will surely expect OECD members to do more than average, not less. Yet electricity demand in the industrial world continues to grow (by an average of 2.0% per year between 1990 and 1995) and the non-fossil contribution seems certain to fall as existing nuclear plants reach the ends of their lives.

So the High Level Advisory Group concludes that “a more thorough discussion of nuclear energy in a sustainability context is required within the OECD”.We shall have to wait to see if that is yet possible.




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