Conference report

The next fifty years

9 July 2004

Some 400 delegates from 38 states attended a week-long meeting spanning Moscow and Obninsk, the IAEA’s international conference on Fifty Years of Nuclear Power – The Next Fifty Years. By Jeremy Gordon

Just over 50 years ago, nuclear power was first used to generate electricity for the public. To mark the anniversary, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) organised a conference spanning Moscow and Obninsk, the science city that is home to the Russian Institute for Physics and Power Engineering (IPPE) and the first reactor to provide power to the grid. The main part of the conference took place in Obninsk and delegates were invited to tour the plant itself and view the AM (Atom Mirny – peaceful atom) reactor.

The Russian government and the Russian Academy of Sciences provided a gilded venue for the inaugural session in Moscow – the high-rise building is adorned with a flare of metalwork and the theme is continued throughout the palatial building. The standard of hospitality afforded to guests in both Moscow and Obninsk was superb.

Speakers at the opening plenary in Moscow

Perspectives, viewpoints and history lessons composed the majority of opening plenary speeches and the warmth felt by speakers for the pioneering work was apparent.

Lev Kotchetkov, who was part of the team that constructed and operated the first power reactor (see NEI June 2004, p14) quoted V I Vernadsky, who wrote in 1922: “Soon the time will come when man will get at his disposal nuclear power, the source that will give him the chance to organise his life as he would like to. It may happen in centuries. But in any case it is obvious that it will have to be. Will man be able to properly use the force, to direct it towards his good and not to his self-destruction?”

In the previous 50 years, it’s been a bit of both – the next 50 years will hopefully be a different story. In Kurchatov Institute president Yevgeny Velikhov’s words: “Nuclear has a bright future, but that depends on us – our will, our reason and our ability to travel such a long distance.”

A large part of the conference was set aside for presentations and discussions about nuclear’s relations to the media and the problems associated with public acceptance – one of nuclear’s long-term problems. Of course, it was noted that nuclear was its own worst enemy in the early days of secrecy and military overtones: Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, said that nuclear needs a human face to overcome the bomb, and, according to Yearn-Hong Choi of the Korean Times, about 85% of Korean editorials concerning nuclear issues are focused on the North Korean weapons programme. Choi said that a power cut would help to change people’s attitudes very quickly – a view parallelled by the IAEA deputy director general, Yuri Sokolov: the decisive factors for hesitant countries are their real needs.

Fanny Bazile, of the French Atomic Energy Commission observed that there is an impasse between scientific language and the media’s needs. This is because the wider public is barely interested in technical matters, but also because such discourse is often too complicated for the media.

Anti-nuclear NGOs are always ready to talk effectively – even if their science can sometimes be questionable – so the nuclear industry needs to take them on at their own game by becoming more forthcoming and mastering the art of the soundbite. It is very difficult to explain technical issues in a 15-second TV soundbite but it can be done with preparation and forethought. It was suggested that a pro-nuclear NGO could be effective in liaison with reporters but it was up to the industry to create such a body, rather than the media to educate themselves in complex technical matters. There were several tentative calls for the IAEA, given its status as the only energy expert body in the UN, to take a more positive role in the promotion of nuclear. Taking this path, however, would put the IAEA’s credibility as the ‘world’s nuclear watchdog’ at serious risk.

The conference centre in Obninsk

Bazile showed that public acceptance levels can also be changed the slow way. During the public debate that preceded a discussion of French energy policy, opposition to nuclear dropped from 25% to 17% while support for maintaining or increasing nuclear capacity increased from 42% to 54%. Bazile puts the success down to the enhanced understanding of the government’s stance that was fostered by a comparative discussion on energy sources. Although nuclear’s CO2 advantages were not as effective a public persuader as may have been hoped, the perceived need to act now against climate change added to nuclear’s appeal.

Even if the public are pleased about nuclear’s record on carbon, we all know that they’re quite dissatisfied with progress to date on waste, spent fuel, ‘material’, or anything else you care to call it. Whilst attending the conference, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei spoke of his recent encouragement for a multilateral approach to spent fuel disposal, noting that not all countries have the necessary economic or geological conditions to develop their own solutions. Following the meeting, ElBaradei met with with the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, to discuss Russia’s proposals for an international repository to be hosted in its territory.

Larry Brown, of the US Department of Energy (DoE), hoped that making steps towards opening the Yucca Mountain repository will demonstrate to doubters that these challenges can be met. Announcing that the DoE is beginning construction on a store for 700,000t of depleted uranium, he expressed his belief that these developments can be instrumental in swinging public opinion round, enabling a nuclear renaissance.

The exact form a renaissance will take remains unclear however. Both non-proliferation needs and pressures on the acceptability of waste volumes make conditions for FBR deployment more favourable but the technology is not considered to be ready. Russia, however, is making progress with the BN series of fast reactors and Kakodkar cited India’s large deposits of thorium as an incentive for the country’s FBR development programme, which aims to meet energy demand while limiting carbon release. The consensus was that FBRs could be deployed from about 2020-2050.

Delegates were impatient for material progress in the development of Generation IV reactors and questioned the wisdom of waiting for them when Generation III plants such as the EPR or Westinghouse’s AP1000 are ready to be built. The response from an international panel was that Generation IV is accepted as the best answer to nuclear’s needs for proliferation resistance, good economics and hydrogen production. According to Valery Rachkov, safety measures account for up to 45% or nuclear’s overall costs; if new designs, methodologies and approaches can reduce this even by only a small amount, nuclear’s competitiveness will increase greatly. At this crucial time for the nuclear industry, rushing this step makes no sense – but decisions such as this can only be made by individual countries.

Advertising celebrations

In the USA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to smooth out and speed up its licensing procedure through the introduction of its combined construction and operating licence scheme, which will allow the construction and operation of a plant in one licensing step. President Bush’s push for a hydrogen economy is expected to lead to a VHTR producing hydrogen at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory but Brown insisted that the USA is “not fixated” on any particular hydrogen producing technology but instead is looking for the best, quickest solution.

Hydrogen is one of the three pillars of nuclear’s hopes for the future, the others being the global need to phase out fossil fuels and the sheer demand for power expected from developing countries. The industry seemed very cool about the current lack of demand for its eco-friendly product. Brown said generation capacity and infrastructure is likely to lag until demand for hydrogen picks up. At that point, he’s confident nuclear will be able to step in. Oleg Saraev of Rosenergoatom echoed the assessment: “The market will find a common language with nuclear,” after stating that hydrogen generation at the Kursk plant is a possibility.

So the dream of small modular plants providing power, desalination and hydrogen to developing countries by the middle of the century remains, but by that time, the developed world will want to be moving on to fusion power. Velikhov referred to the current political dispute over the siting of the ITER fusion reactor as a ‘comic problem’ and explained that wherever ITER is built it will be almost as much of a milestone as the Obninsk plant: “We still dream of such an achievement in fusion.” Even after $5 billion spent, a 16 year wait to choose a site and the $30 billion cost of construction, ITER will not generate any electricity. But it is hoped that a demonstration plant producing “dozens of gigawatts” will come next, paving the way for the first full-scale fusion power reactor – which could produce 100GWe. Velikhov’s view is that the figure is realistic for this century, but will come with a hefty price tag.

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