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World: Nuclear Industry Looks To Uncertain Future

By Nigel Glass

Vienna, 16 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Nuclear energy faces an uncertain future, with economists unable to assess the demand for nuclear power and engineers divided over the way it should be generated.

The dilemma facing the industry is reflected in the wide disagreement between estimates of how much nuclear power the world will need in 50 years. Some projections show that there will be an actual decrease, while others suggest that the planet will need five times as much as it is using at the moment.

At present, some 62 percent of the world's electricity is generated from the fossil fuels coal, oil and gas. About 17 per cent is generated from nuclear energy, and about the same percentage from hydro-electric systems. The future of these non-nuclear alternatives is ironically the largest question mark hanging over the nuclear industry.

The "old" fuel coal is likely to enjoy a future in countries which have a ready supply and which are not likely to resist open-cast mining on environmental grounds. And gas use is set to increase greatly on cost grounds and because of improvements which are being achieved in the gas turbine technology.

The nuclear industry's most optimistic hope is that public opinion will turn against fossil fuels because of concerns over emissions and consequent global warming. At a symposium on nuclear strategy held by the International Atomic Energy Agency - the world's nuclear regulatory authority - in Vienna earlier this month there were calls for governments to reduce enthusiasm for fossil fuels by drastically increasing the tax on their use for electric generation.

IAEA spokesman David Kyd says countries reguarly pledge at environmental conferences to cut their fossil fuel emissions, but in reality those emissions usually grow relentlessly. Kyd told RFE/RL today that the present cheapness of gas makes the building of new nuclear facilities in Europe and the U.S. uneconomical for the foreseeable future. Many older-generation nuclear power stations will be closed in the coming decades. He said the nuclear industry however is hoping for continued growth in nuclear power generation in the burgeoning economies of Asia.

The irony in that scenario is that the focus of the nuclear industry would shift to the developing world -- where a number of governments may be less than willing to join international safeguards against the spread of nuclear weapons. India for instance is expected to greatly increase its use of both nuclear energy and fossil fuels, and yet it is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and is not subject to the rigid system of IAEA inspections. China likewise is certain to greatly expand all forms of energy use, but is exempt from the IAEA inspection regime because it is already a declared nuclear weapons power.

On the technological side, the uncertain future of the nuclear industry arises from disagreement over the choice of nuclear fuel, the design of power stations suited to that fuel and the availability of investment for new designs. Scientists at the IAEA symposium were quick to note that with all the uncertainties, it will be hard to attract cash for new nuclear technologies.

The fuel issue is over a choice whether the fuel should be recycled. During the burning of the uranium-based fuel, plutonium is produced which can be extracted during reprocessing and re-used. It can either be used directly as a fuel on its own in state-of-the art reactors, or combined with uranium in conventional light water reactors.

But the disadvantage of what experts call the cycle of fuel use, is the unpopularity of plutonium. It is a deadly poison, as well as an ingredient of nuclear weapons. If reprocessing is carried out the material is open to misappropriation for clandestine weapons development. Here the industry faces one of its most thorny problem with environmentalists, who are opposed to any transportation of plutonium. Some scientists at the Vienna symposium were against recycling on similar grounds.

Whatever the political and technical advantages of reprocessing, at the moment it is not economically justified anyway because of the low price of uranium. It is cheaper to store the used fuel, along with it's plutonium, and simply burn more uranium. The disadvantage of this is an ever growing stock of discarded plutonium and yet more environmental problems from uranium mining.

All in all therefore, the nuclear industry is locked in a confusing cycle of economic, political and environmental uncertainty.