Sustainable development and nuclear energy
Effects of climate change on a city. Image: Ben Goode/Shutterstock

Sustainable development is a goal that transcends national boundaries and generations of people. It integrates environmental protection, economic growth and social welfare. A key challenge for sustainable development policies is to address these three dimensions in a balanced way.

Energy issues play a defining role in shaping the sustainable development debate. The production and consumption of energy are at the heart of economic development and social progress. All forms of energy production create some form of environmental impact that frequently involves resource depletion. Furthermore, energy policies are often long-term and can determine modes of production and consumption for decades. 

Debate on nuclear energy and the sustainable development

Every source of energy has advantages and disadvantages concerning sustainable development. The analysis of nuclear energy characteristics within a sustainable development framework shows that the approach adopted by 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.

In OECD countries, during normal operation nuclear energy has a low impact on health and the environment. To make a continuing contribution to sustainable development goals, nuclear energy will have to maintain its high standards of safety despite increasing competition in the electricity sector ageing reactors and the expansion of the industry to new countries and regions.

Nuclear energy and the environment

Sustainable development depends on the long-term availability and environmentally sound production of fuel.

The high energy density of uranium (1 tonne of uranium is the energy equivalent of 14 000-23 000 tonnes of coal), the ease with which stockpiles can be maintained and the widespread geographical distribution of uranium resources all offer security of supply advantages. Past uranium mining practices that created environmental issues are no longer licensed today. Modern extraction and processing methods minimise impacts on people and the environment.

Although uranium is perceived by some to be a finite resource with limited availability, the two previous periods of intense exploration (1940s and 1970s) stimulated by increasing demand resulted in the identification of resources far beyond anticipated requirements. Over 2.3 million tonnes of natural uranium has been produced to date, and identified uranium resources over the same period have generally increased. As of 2009, identified conventional uranium resources are sufficient for 100 years of supply at current rates of consumption.

Arguments against nuclear energy often include the notion that accident risk and radioactive waste diminish the contribution of nuclear energy to sustainable development. Over 50 years of experience in OECD member countries demonstrates that responsibly managed nuclear power programmes have a very low safety risk and much smaller impacts on the environment and public health than other sources of energy especially for emissions and air pollution.

Radioactive waste is probably the most important issue when considering the use of nuclear energy. Progress has been made in reducing the volume of final waste and next-generation reactors will burn fuel even more efficiently. Nevertheless, remaining waste has to be addressed and long-term storage is currently the safest and most viable solution. While such waste needs to be handled with care, above-ground storage in specially designed casks over the past 50 years has been handled with great success and minimal environmental impact. While there is no technical urgency to implement geological storage of long-lived waste repositories, the construction and commissioning of such facilities demonstrate that the goals of sustainable development can be met. It is also worth noting that radioactive waste represents less than 1% of the overall toxic waste produced by countries with nuclear energy industries. No other category of waste is recorded so precisely and stored so safely.

Economics of nuclear energy

Nuclear energy provides large amounts of virtually carbon-free baseload power at stable variable cost, contributing significantly to both the economic and the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

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 their high capital cost. Up to 70% of new plant lifetime costs can be due before the date of first operation, making nuclear power sensitive to interest rates and financing costs.

Once in operation, however, nuclear power plants have very low variable costs and are highly competitive, which makes the lifetime extension of existing plants such an attractive option. Of course, such extensions must be conducted under strict regulatory supervision, with all components subject to degradation replaced or upgraded.

The nuclear option internalises a large part of its external costs, such as the decommissioning of the plant at the end of its life and the management and disposal of the radioactive waste. Such a claim cannot be made by fossil fuel technologies, all of which emit waste to the environment.

Social dimension of nuclear energy

The social dimension of nuclear energy's contribution to sustainable development is ambivalent. While nuclear energy contributes to the security of energy supply, local employment and technological development, it can also be politically divisive in some OECD member countries. Some of these reactions can be traced to associations with military uses of nuclear energy and more generalised concerns about technological progress and risk. The nuclear energy debate must equally address the issues of public perception along with economic, environmental and technical issues. 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 engage the public in dialogue on social, ethical and political issues related to nuclear energy in comparison to other energy alternatives. This dialogue will create informed decision-making processes and help advance the role of nuclear energy in the context of sustainable development.

Related news
Publications and reports
NEA work on this topic

The NEA aims to provide governments and other relevant stakeholders with authoritative, reliable information and analyses on the role of nuclear energy now and in the future from a sustainable development perspective.

Given the significant nuclear fuel resources available and the economic and environmental benefit nuclear energy can provide as an important low-carbon source of electricity and heat, a discussion of the contributions made by nuclear energy in the context of sustainable development has been taking place within the OECD, and needs to be continued and expanded. The case for nuclear energy as a potential contributor to the development of low carbon economies will be robust if certain conditions are met to demonstrate that this form of energy is being properly managed. The NEA can provide the OECD with the necessary input on the various aspects of nuclear power for further analyses in a broad context.

The NEA Committee for Technical and Economic Studies on Nuclear Energy Development and the Fuel Cycle (NDC) works in this area to advise decision makers and policy makers on the economics of nuclear energy and its entire fuel cycle.

OECD and other related work on this topic

Nuclear energy: Towards sustainable development (2007)
OECD countries share the same goals of sustainable development, but differ in their views on the role of nuclear energy in achieving those goals. Indeed, few energy sources have been scrutinised in the public spotlight over the years quite as much. The question is simple: is nuclear really a sustainable energy? Article by NEA Director-General Luis E. Echávarri published in the OECD Observer.

OECD work on green growth and sustainable developement
The crisis convinced many countries that a different kind of economic growth is needed. In response, many governments are putting in place measures aimed at a green recovery. Together with innovation, going green can be a long-term driver for economic growth, through, for example, investing in renewable energy and improved efficiency in the use of energy and materials.

OECD ministers recognise that sustainable development is an overarching goal for their governments and the OECD. OECD countries bear a special responsibility in achieving sustainable development worldwide. OECD activities are overseen by the Annual Meeting of Sustainable Development Experts (AMSDE), who review special projects as well as progress in mainstreaming sustainable development concepts into the overall work of the OECD.

Most OECD activities relate to sustainable development, from climate change analysis to development co-operation to corporate social responsibility. On this website, there are links to a wealth of projects and information which highlight certain dimensions of sustainable development.

The OECD works closely with the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) and contributes specifically to activities on education for sustainable development, public/private partnerships for sustainable development and special themes.

Energy for Sustainable Development 
This free brochure compiles policy recommendations from the OECD and its sister agencies, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the NEA, as a contribution to UNCSD-15.

Round Table on Sustainable Development
The ministerial-level Round Table on Sustainable Development was established in 1998. It is an independent body hosted by the OECD. In May 2001, OECD ministers formally endorsed the role of the Round Table as a forum for international dialogue among stakeholders. The following year, OECD Ministers again singled out the Round Table and asked it to continue to "generate policy ideas and build consensus for actions" to assist them in achieving their "sustainable development objectives".

United Nations Climate Change Conference Cancun - COP 16 / CMP 6
29 November to 10 December 2010

Kyoto Protocol
Complete text of the 1992 protocol.

The Bruntland Report is the common shorthand for the report "Our Common Future" by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It is published by Oxford University Press.