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Nuclear Energy and Alternatives

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates,

This statement addresses the current status of nuclear power. It identifies several trends and issues which we consider are essential considerations for decision-makers in placing nuclear power into an overall perspective of how best to meet the growing demands for energy in a sustainable manner. This includes addressing the question of how a sustainable energy future might be achieved. Further and more detailed information, which complements the points raised in this statement, may be found in a background paper which is also being distributed to delegates.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates

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1998 NPT Index

The 26th of April, just two days ago, was the anniversary of the worst-ever accident to-date at a commercial nuclear power plant - the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

In the former Soviet Union alone, it is estimated today that at least 9 million people have been effected by the Chernobyl disaster: 2.5 million in Belarus; 3.5 million in Ukraine; and 3 million in Russia. The incidence of thyroid cancer amongst children in these countries has escalated dramatically, and other health problems are widespread amongst those effected by the accident. In these three republics, over 160,000 km2 of land was contaminated. And the contamination spread over much of the northern hemisphere also.

The lesson of Chernobyl is clear - the knowledge of the awesome power available through the use of atomic energy must be tempered by the knowledge of what can and does result when things go wrong. We must remain aware that all nuclear reactor designs can suffer catastrophic accidents on the same scale of Chernobyl - even if the exact nature of  the design-weaknesses giving rise to these risks may be different for each major design type.

But the health and environmental consequences of nuclear power is only one part of the picture. The actual performance of nuclear power as a technology, its economics, its relation to nuclear proliferation, and the availability of alternative sources of energy must be considered also.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates

The nuclear industry is in a period of stagnation world-wide and in actual decline in many countries.

Between the end of 1996 and the end of 1997, the total number of reactors in operation world-wide fell from 440 to 430 units. In this time, the total operational generating capacity fell by some 5,000 MW(e). The reasons behind this decline are clear - nuclear power has failed to establish itself as a clean, cheap, safe, reliable or acceptable source of energy.

It now seems likely that there will be a continuing decline in orders for nuclear power plants. It is also likely that the total number of reactors in operation will decrease as plants get older and are closed without being replaced by new nuclear reactors.

There are a number of factors underlying this poor outlook for nuclear power:

  • the high cost of nuclear power relative to alternative sources of energy;
  • the difficulty of accommodating nuclear technology in increasingly competitive electricity supply systems;
  • the lack of financial resources and diminishing political support to provide the resources required to develop new nuclear technology;
  • a failure to adequately address safety, environmental and proliferation issues. This also includes considerations related to: the safety of reactors and other types of nuclear installations; spent fuel management (with   reprocessing being of particular concern) and other radioactive nuclear waste management; international transports of nuclear materials; and liability and compensation for damage arising from nuclear accidents;
  • the opposition to nuclear power technology felt by a significant proportion of the populations of many countries.

In summary, these factors combine to make it likely that, over the coming years, few reactors are likely to be built and an increasing number of nuclear reactors are likely to be shut-down - perhaps even before the planned end of their 'economic' lives.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates

The nuclear industry is currently desperate to find a valid rationale and justification to increase public support and to obtain renewed state support and funding for nuclear power.

With this in mind, the nuclear industry currently stresses the fact that nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide (or CO2), the major 'greenhouse' gas responsible for climate change. The self-serving conclusion the nuclear industry promotes, is that switching from fossil fuels to nuclear power is the only way to cut CO2 without radically changing consumption patterns and deal with expanding global demands for energy. However, even the most basic examination of the issue reveals that nuclear power has no real role in tackling global climate change. In fact quite the opposite is true -  any resources expended on attempting to advance nuclear power as a viable solution to climate change would inevitably detract from genuine measures to reduce the threat posed by climate change.

Two other strategies being pursued by the nuclear industry to try secure itself a future. Firstly, as traditional markets for reactor construction have 'dried-up', there is now aggressive export marketing of nuclear reactors - especially, but not only, to Asia. Secondly, the pursuit of potentially lucrative contracts for refurbishment of nuclear reactors built to designs and/or standards no longer considered 'acceptably safe'. However, neither of these strategies have produced sufficient work to-date to reverse the overall decline of the industry. The economic down-turn in Asia may well postpone for the foreseeable future the realisation of many of the ambitious plans for nuclear expansion in this region, as less investment-intensive energy strategies are pursued instead. Nonetheless, the aggressive marketing of nuclear power remains a source of concern, especially where standards and procedures that would be required in the exporting State may not be adhered to in the desire to capture contracts.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates,

In deciding how best to tackle global warming and in determining how the world's future energy needs may be met, we have to take into account the availability of alternatives to nuclear power, their environmental impact and their impact on global security. If all these factors are considered, nuclear power is simply not a viable option - let alone the best one.

In the 1990s, major developments have been made in generating energy through the use of renewable sources of energy - wind, solar, and biomass. These energy sources are sustainable and do not involve the environmental and proliferation concerns of nuclear energy. They are also increasingly competitive - both technically and economically. The performance of the latest generation of some of these renewable energy technologies at least equals and may even surpasses nuclear power for reliability and competitiveness, if the full costs of nuclear power are taken into account. In addition, investment in energy efficiency is an extremely cost-effective and less environmentally-threatening means of providing energy. For those few countries, highly dependent on nuclear power (especially where this involves the operation of particularly 'unsafe' reactor designs) natural gas may offer a suitable transition fuel to allow a relatively swift phase-out of nuclear power.

It is often stressed that the NPT enshrines the right to develop and obtain the benefits of the peaceful nuclear energy. It should be noted that less than one-fifth of NPT States Parties actually have civil nuclear power programmes and that for health, environmental, economic and proliferation reasons, an expansion of nuclear power is undesirable. Indeed, a phase-out of existing nuclear power programmes is what is needed.

However, giving up the nuclear power option does not mean giving up the potential benefits arising from medical, scientific and industrial applications of nuclear technology.

Finally, in order to meet growing world-wide demands for energy, a 'contemporary' Article IV would promote research, technology transfer and assistance in developing sustainable energy development, including energy efficiency. It would also encourage new or strengthened forms of co-operation, financial and institutional arrangements to allow the energy aspirations of the developing world, in particular, to be met in a sustainable manner.

The energy challenges we face amount to a decision on the type of world we wish our children to inherit. Do we want our children to live in a world in which the inseparable links between military and civil applications of nuclear power exist in every nation and where the environment daily deteriorates ? Or, do we want to give them opportunities for development based on an energy infrastructure for society which is sustainable ? If we are to give them a future, it means that we have to bring about a world in which energy is both used efficiently and is generated through the use of sustainable renewable energy systems. Such a future holds no place for nuclear power.

The choice is ours and we need to make it now.

Statement Coordinator: Simon Carroll, Adviser for Nuclear and Disarmament Affairs, Greenpeace International, Keizersgracht 176, NL-1016 DW Amsterdam Phone:  +31 (20) 523.62.88, Fax:   +31 (20) 523.62.00 E-mail:  simon.carroll@ams.greenpeace.org

The contact address in Geneva, for the duration of the NPT PrepCom, is:
Hotel les Nations, Room 603, 62, rue du Grand-Pre, CH-1202 Geneva, Phone:
(022) 734 30 03 Fax:    (022) 734 38 84, Mobile: +31 (6) 535 04 708