former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who has advised
the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on how to replace
the Chornobyl nuclear plant, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Heather
Maher about the upcoming report.
RFE/RL: Countries like France, India, China, and the United States are already embracing nuclear energy. There are 173 operating nuclear power plants in Europe, and a total of 440 worldwide. Do you see the IEA's recommendation as part of a global trend toward an increased reliance on nuclear energy?
Peter Bradford: No, there isn't much of a global trend toward nuclear power plants under way at this point. The U.S. hasn't built one in 30 years and there hasn't been a new one started in Europe, except for Finland, for several years. What's really going on now both in the U.S. and in Europe is a good deal of blowing on the embers by the nuclear industry and various governments, but [there's] not much [of a ] flame to show for it.
RFE/RL: The Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries asked the IEA last summer to come up with a recommendation to reduce greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels and nuclear power is part of their answer -- along with recommending steps to make other energy-generating technologies more efficient. Do you agree with encouraging countries around the world to develop nuclear energy, and do you worry that it could raise the risk of nuclear proliferation? After all, there is the whole crisis over Western charges that Iran is using the cover of its nuclear energy program to seek nuclear weapons.
Bradford: In order to do what the International Energy Agency is recommending, which is making nuclear power a significant part of the response to climate change, you really have to think in terms of tripling the amount of nuclear capacity that exists in the world. And that's a huge undertaking in terms of additional waste repositories, additional concerns about weapons proliferation, because it means building nuclear plants in a lot of countries that don't already have them, some of which are countries of concern from a proliferation standpoint.
To me it seems wiser to create an economic structure within which the price of getting the carbon out of the energy system is reflected in the price of all fuels, and then seeing which among the most promising energy-efficient and renewable coal and gas technologies really turn out to be the most successful and letting nuclear power compete as well, but not trying to anoint it as a winner in advance.
'Unfortunate' Government Decisions
RFE/RL: How likely is it that governments around the world are going to take the IEA's advice?
Bradford: For the most part, efforts by government or entities such as the IEA to pick particular technologies have had unfortunate endings. And that's especially true with regard to nuclear power. Because the plants aren't safer because they're needed -- they're safe because people take a lot of care and precaution to make them safe.
So when they come under a sort of artificial governmental pressure -- build more in the [1970s] to avoid oil imports, build more now in order to mitigate climate change -- it can create an unhealthy situation in which they outgrow their operating experience, and -- as happened in the U.S. and Britain, too -- wind up with an awful lot of economic headaches and the occasional safety headache, as well.
RFE/RL: Why do some governments decide to build nuclear power plants and others don't?
Bradford: There's no country anywhere in the world that has built a nuclear power plant through the processes of competitive selection -- that is, having all energy sources bid against each other. Where nuclear power gets chosen, it gets chosen through mandates of countries that do their nuclear-power planning through centralized and quite closed processes with not a lot being asked -- and nothing being publicly asked -- about what the alternatives are. So both in terms of the trends economically, and trends toward democratic governance politically, these aren't trends that have been hospitable to the choosing of nuclear power.
RFE/RL: Have nuclear power plants gotten safer since the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1984, and the massive explosion at Chornobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, in 1986?
Bradford: Well, [they are] certainly safer since Chornobyl in the sense that that design isn't being built anymore. And the other Chornobyl units have been closed down. There are a few of that type still operating. So one can be confidant that that particular accident is much less likely to happen again.
But the economics are still problematic. In the reviews that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development did -- the ones that were done honestly -- as to what the best options to replace Chornobyl were, even completing half-finished nuclear units didn't fare well against some of the other options that were available in Ukraine.
RFE/RL: What were those options?
Bradford: Operation of the then-12 nuclear units that already existed in Ukraine and which were only running about 60 percent of the time. By getting them up to 80 or 85 percent, you'd get as many nuclear kilowatt-hours as you would by building additional plants.
RFE/RL: But, if construction on a new nuclear power plant was begun tomorrow, the technology would arguably be the latest available, so therefore, safer, right?
Bradford: The technology would be improved versions of what we've seen in the past. The so-called "new" designs -- the ones that are really technologically different from existing reactors -- are still on the drawing board. Some of them look reasonably promising from a safety standpoint, and from an economic standpoint, but they haven't proven anything in commercial operation yet.
(The IEA is an intergovernmental body that promotes the coordination of energy policy between its members states. The IEA member countries are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.)
Prague Energy Forum, October 23-24
An oil refinery in Western Siberia (TASS)
STABILITY AND SECURITY: On October 23-24, RFE/RL and the Warsaw-based Economic forum cosponsored the Prague Energy Forum at RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center. The Energy Forum brought together nearly 100 experts and policymakers from Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East to discuss key issues of energy supply and security in the years to come.
HIGHLIGHTS: RFE/RL presents some of the key presentations from the Energy Forum and interviews with some participants: