Nuclear energy and sustainable development

Sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

World Commission on Environment and Development
(Brundtland Commission), 1987

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.

Nuclear energy and the sustainable development debate

Every source of energy has advantages and disadvantages with respect to 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. 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.

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 with respect to 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. 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 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.

NEA sustainable development publications and reports

Nuclear Energy: Combating Climate Change (2015)
The global response to address climate change is a key policy challenge of the 21st century. Many governments around the world have agreed that action should be taken to achieve large cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the coming decades, to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to ensure the necessary financial and technical support for developing countries to take action.

Projected Costs of Generating Electricity (2015) | Executive summary
This joint report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) is the eighth in a series of studies on electricity generating costs. As policy makers work to ensure that the power supply is reliable, secure and affordable, while making it increasingly clean and sustainable in the context of the debate on climate change, it is becoming more crucial that they understand what determines the relative cost of electricity generation using fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable sources of energy. A wide range of fuels and technologies are presented in the report, including natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, solar, onshore and offshore wind, biomass and biogas, geothermal, and combined heat and power, drawing on a database from surveys of investment and operating costs that include a larger number of countries than previous editions.

The Role of Nuclear Energy in a Low-carbon Energy Future (2012)
This report assesses the role that nuclear energy can play in supporting the transition to a low-carbon energy system. It begins by considering the greenhouse gas emissions from the full nuclear fuel cycle, reviewing recent studies on indirect emissions and assessing the impact that nuclear power could make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear energy and addressing climate change (2010)
The need to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in an effort to tackle climate change has become a major driver of energy policy. Indeed, many believe that an "energy revolution" is needed to decarbonise energy supply, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

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.

Nuclear Energy and the Kyoto Protocol (2002)
This book provides key facts concerning nuclear energy and the Kyoto Protocol. It highlights the challenges and opportunities for the future development of nuclear energy in the context of implementing the Kyoto protocol, and more broadly in alleviating the risks of global climate change.

Nuclear Energy in a Sustainable Development Perspective (2000)
This report for policy makers provides a review of the specific characteristics of nuclear energy in relation to 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 evaluate to what extent and under which conditions nuclear energy can contribute to sustainable development. 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.

NEA News, Spring 2001, Volume 19, No. 1 (2001)
This issue of NEA News was prepared in conjunction with the OECD Forum 2001 on “Sustainable development and the new economy”. It includes a range of individual contributions on the subject of nuclear energy and sustainable development, covering its economic, social and environmental aspects. They outline the role that nuclear energy may be able to play in helping to promote sustainable development in OECD member countries and beyond. This role arises from two of nuclear energy's most important assets: namely, that it produces negligible amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and provides a stable supply of baseload electricity which is not vulnerable to volatility in fuel prices.

Articles available on this site:

Sustainable energy for future generations by Donald Johnston, OECD Secretary-General

Energy and sustainable development: issues and options by Mr. Olivier Appert, Director of the Office of Long-Term Co-operation and Policy Analysis, International Energy Agency

Nuclear energy economics in a sustainable development perspective by Dr. Evelyne Bertel (NEA Nuclear Development Division) and Dr. Robert Morrison (former Chairman of the NEA Steering Committee for Nuclear Energy)

Radioactive waste management and sustainable development by Jorge Lang-Lenton Léon, Director of Communication, ENRESA

Measuring the sustainability of energy systems by Prof. Wolfgang Kröger, Nuclear Energy and Safety Department, Paul Scherrer Institute

Sustainable development and nuclear liability by Julia Schwartz (NEA Legal Affairs Division) | Complete issue 

Related links

OECD work on green growth
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.

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.

OECD Work on Sustainable Development
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.

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 and published by Oxford University Press.

Last reviewed: 25 August 2016

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