Perspectives in Nuclear Energy

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Bernard Frois CEA - Saclay,

F-91191 Gif sur Yvette, France [email protected]

Nuclear energy is an important source of electricity in many countries. It produces approximately 7% of the world's primary energy consumption. There are in total 440 reactors in operation around the world [1]. The first generation of nuclear reactors was designed in the 1950s and '60s. The second generation began in the 1970s in the large commercial power plants that are now in operation.

The future of nuclear power involves difficult issues: economics, waste disposal, safety, proliferation and an energy policy that is specific to each country. A general review can be found in the MIT interdisciplinary study [2]. The conclusions of the IAEA Ministerial Conference, held in Paris in March 2005, indicate a strong evolution of the worldwide perception on nuclear energy. Ministerial delegations from 30 countries, and representatives from 74 countries and from 10 international organizations discussed the perspectives of "Nuclear Power for the 21st Century." There was no unanimous view, but a significant majority proposed that the contribution of nuclear energy should be increased to meet future world energy needs. Many delegations have expressed the urgent need to make decisions and take measures to make easier the implementation of new nuclear production systems, in particular for developing countries.

Nuclear power does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. With the development of a new generation of fast reactors, nuclear energy would become a truly sustainable energy source. One of the important conclusions of the European Union Green Paper "Towards a European strategy for the energy security supply" [3], published in 2000, was that the goal is no longer to replace nuclear energy, but to develop new energy technologies to satisfy the continuous increase in energy demand.

E.J. Moniz (ed.), Climate Change and Energy Pathways for the Mediterranean, 113-125. © 2008 Springer.

To give some perspective, the world consumption of primary energy is approximately 10 billion tons of oil equivalent (TOE) per year. Electricity demand is increasing much more rapidly than overall energy use, and is projected to grow at 2.8% per year to 2010, and substantially to 2020. This corresponds to an average value of 1.7 per capita. However, there are large differences among countries. The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report two years ago in Johannesburg, showing that 1.6 billion people today have no access to electricity. 2.4 billion people rely on primitive biomass for cooking and heating, with concomitant health damage (mostly to women and children) and environmental degradation. What is more shocking is that, in the absence of radical new policies, 1.4 billion people will still have no access to electricity in 30 years time; and the number reliant on primitive biomass for cooking and heating will actually rise, to 2.6 billion. Furthermore, the two countries with the largest populations, China and India, are below one ton per capita and their energy consumption is growing at a fast pace. Several organizations, such as the International Energy Agency of the OECD and the World Energy Council are issuing predictions of the future needs. They all agree that the world population growth will go from the present 6 billion to some 10 billion in 2050. The goal of 2 tons per capita and per year would imply a strong policy of energy savings in the industrialized countries to compensate for part of the increase in developing countries. This would nevertheless lead to a doubling of world energy consumption within the next 50 years, on the order of 20 billion TOE per year.

Fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas currently meet more than 85% of world energy needs and will continue to dominate for some time. There is no longer any doubt that the increase in atmospheric is due to our growing use of these fuels without any containment of the CO2 waste. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the effect of a continuation of this increase in CO2 on the Earth's climate will be significant and often damaging, with rising sea levels, more storms, floods and droughts and the destruction of precious habitats. Large quantities of additional energy will be needed to fuel economic growth, especially in developing countries with large populations like China, India and Brazil. If recent trends in energy use continue, as most economic analysts expect, then worldwide demand will grow by about 50% by 2020 and will double by 2050 [1, 4]. The growth will be even larger for electricity since, more than any other form of energy, it is an essential ingredient of economic development. Yet this growth with the present mix of fuels can only lead to more ecological problems.

Providing more energy, while limiting the use of fossil fuels, is difficult. There is no simple solution. All available options must be considered with an open mind [1]. Conservation and improved energy efficiency are the most effective options for the next few decades, but these will not be enough on their own. The rate of improvement in efficiency over the last few decades has been smaller than the rate of growth in economic activity, so that energy demand has continued to rise. For the developing world, whose population is fast growing and starts from a small economic base, economic growth is faster and, in the normal course of events, energy use will actually grow faster still for some time to come. The world as a whole, therefore, needs to develop carbon-free energy sources.

Most popular at present is the increased use of natural gas. Because of the so-called "dash to gas," the OECD expects it to supply a larger share of the larger energy demand expected in the future (26% predicted for 2020; up from 22% at present).

The new renewable sources of energy, such as solar power, wind power and biomass, are also carbon free and there is a widespread hope that they will supply higher and higher percentages of our energy mix; but it will not happen easily.

In the longer term, from 2050 on, nuclear fusion may prove a very attractive contributor, and R&D on it should be actively pursued. Considerable progress has been achieved in particular in Europe at the JET European fusion facility (Culham, UK), at Tore Supra (CEA Cadarache, France) and at Naka in Japan. These machines have shown the path to the future. The goal of the next machine "ITER" is to be the last scientific demonstration before building the prototype for a commercial plant. China, Europe, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States have announced at the beginning of July at the IAEA meeting in Vienna that ITER will be built at Cadarache in France. This is a great success for world scientific cooperation. ITER will allow for the understanding of nuclear fusion at the right scale. Before building a commercial nuclear fusion reactor, it will be necessary to study radiation damage in materials with a very intense source of neutron (IFMIF). The last step will be the building of the prototype of a commercial power plant (DEMO). A reasonable estimate of the time scale for commercial nuclear fusion energy would be on the order of 50 years, corresponding to the second half of this century.

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