Paris, 7 December 2000
As part of a three-year project on sustainable development conducted by the OECD, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) announces the publication of a new report for policy makers which provides a review of the specific characteristics of nuclear energy in relation to sustainable development. This report is intended to assist governments in assessing the extent to which nuclear energy is compatible with the goals of sustainable development, and how it can best contribute to them.
The concept of sustainable development was elaborated in the late 1980s and defined as a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In a broad sense, sustainable development incorporates equity within and across countries as well as across generations, and integrates economic growth, environmental protection and social welfare. A key challenge for sustainable development policies is to address those three dimensions in a balanced way, taking advantage of their interactions and making relevant trade-offs whenever needed.
The report notes that the analysis of nuclear energy characteristics within a sustainable development framework shows that the approach adopted within the nuclear energy sector is generally consistent with the fundamental sustainable development goal of passing on a range of assets to future generations while minimising environmental impacts and burdens.
While existing nuclear power plants are economically competitive in most cases and perform well in deregulated electricity markets, the economic competitiveness of new nuclear power plants will remain an issue due to its high capital cost, although nuclear power has already internalised a large part of external costs.
In OECD countries, nuclear energy in normal operation has a low impact on health and the environment, but in order to make a continuing contribution to sustainable development goals, nuclear energy will have to maintain its high standards of safety in spite of increasing competition in the electricity sector, ageing reactors, and the expansion of the industry to new countries and regions.
Geological disposal of long-lived radioactive waste has been identified as a technically safe solution that can be implemented without affecting the competitive position of nuclear energy. While there is no technical urgency to implement long-lived waste repositories, it is important to construct and commission such facilities to demonstrate that the goals of sustainable development can be fulfilled.
More broadly, in order to meet sustainable development goals, nuclear energy will have to achieve a higher level of social acceptance than it enjoys in many countries today. The role of governments is to allow the public to put social, ethical and political issues related to nuclear energy into perspective with the issues raised by alternatives, in order to create the conditions for decision-making processes consistent with the goals of sustainable development.
Since national policy decisions in the energy field result from trade-offs between economic, social and environmental factors, nuclear energy should be put in perspective with alternatives. The report identifies the main benefits, impacts and risks of nuclear energy in order to help Governments to evaluate to what extent and under which conditions nuclear energy can contribute to sustainable development. Broader horizontal work within the OECD on risks and benefits of other energy sources will contribute to establish a comprehensive framework for this purpose.
The report, which does not in any way prejudge the energy policies of individual countries, can be seen as a useful instrument for the international community to gauge nuclear energy against long-term energy challenges.
Nuclear Energy in a Sustainable Development Perspective
ISBN 978-92-6-418278-3, OECD 2000