UME speaks exclusively to a senior IAEA official
In the early 1950s a landmark speech, delivered by the then US President Dwight Eisenhower, proposed the idea of an international body that would oversee and support the development of atomic energy.
Just a year later the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came into being. Since then, the organisation has evolved to embrace a wider energy remit, with a particular focus on developing countries.
Holger Rogner is a programme leader and section head, Planning and Economic Studies Section (PESS) for the IAEA’s department of nuclear energy. His portfolio of responsibilities includes capacity building in developing countries for energy and environmental analysis.
“This isn’t just nuclear specific,” he said. “We look at the full energy system. This involves looking at resource endowment, through to technological capabilities, supporting infrastructure, and what the cost-optimal energy mix is over the next 25-30 years. Meeting energy security objectives and measuring environmental impact are the main thrusts of my remit.”
In this context Rogner sees the development of a nuclear industry in the Middle East as a rational decision, regardless of oil wealth.
“If the oil price is high, countries in the Middle East can get more economic benefit from selling that oil, rather than burning it at home,” he said.
“You have to diversify your energy systems. Even if now you are well endowed with oil and gas, in the long run you may find that it is simply too precious to simply stick in a power plant. Other sectors such as transport and petrochemicals rely on these resources too.”
It is a strong argument and one that regional leadership has been keen to latch on to. Nuclear programmes would also help diversify the economies of participating nations. Spin offs from the nuclear industry are expected to be high value and knowledge based, qualities sought by regional economies.
“People often wonder why Saudi Arabia would want a nuclear power industry,” said Rogner. “But from a pure economic analysis, it makes sense.”
The long-term commitment and heavy-weight financing required for a nuclear programme make it tricky for countries to get out of the starting blocks. While public-private partnerships have been mooted, none have got off the ground.
“These PPPs are certainly something we have looked into, but nothing has materialised,” said Rogner. “In those countries where it was most needed, government-private partnerships of this kind are more or less unprecedented. Nobody really knows how it would function, and nobody wants to be the guinea pig.”
That said Rogner still sees room for manoeuvre in traditional nuclear powered countries. He cites European nations where site planning and environmental analysis has been done and things continue to progress, regardless of the financial downturn. Part of the reason for this is the established funding of European utility companies.
Further support for continuing European programmes comes from the need to improve and replace existing capacity. Many of the current crop of power plants came on stream in the 1970s and are gradually reaching the end of their technical lifespan. In countries such as France and the UK the IAEA’s role is primarily a safety one, because these nations can do their own capacity planning and economic analysis. This puts the IAEA’s emphasis on working with developing countries.
“Their focus is driven not only by market activity and energy security, but also real demand-side energy issues,” said Rogner. “To advance their own economic development aspirations they have to produce more energy.”
The resurgent interest in nuclear energy has been sparked by a combination of factors. Issues of energy security, climate change and volatile energy pricing have all made nuclear look good. This has lead to a number of countries wanting to join the nuclear pack. Rogner identifies India and China as the main contenders ‘by a long-shot’. But these are not the only countries giving it consideration.
“Other developing Asian countries also have grid capacities that would accommodate a nuclear power option,” said Rogner. “Many are not yet at a stage where nuclear would fit into the system as an economically viable part of the matrix. Nuclear power is not something you can dip into, switch on and switch off. It’s a long term commitment which requires a substantial infrastructure development.
“In order to develop this infrastructure you need the educational support structure, and you can’t start that early enough. Even if nuclear is on a country’s horizon 20 or 30 years from now, all of the development that can be started now is beneficial.”
Development for China is an issue of need and nuclear is one among many options the country is exploring.
But it and all other countries interested in nuclear as an energy source must consider a host of issues.
First among these is overall grid capacity.
“We have a rule of thumb that the largest unit should not exceed more than 10% of grid capacity,” said Rogner. “So in case a plant has to come off the grid, the whole system isn’t negatively affected. When you limit the scope to the countries that this applies to, the list shrinks quite fast.
“You also need to look at the financial capacity. Nuclear energy has high up front costs but is cheap to operate. To get to the benefits of cheap operation you have to overcome the hurdle of initial investment.
“There are not too many countries that can fund that out of petty cash. What we have seen is countries like the United Arab Emirates, which has the cash and the history of involving outside help, being in a unique position to move faster than countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia, where the cash and cultural aspects are quite different.”
When it comes to other resources, specifically uranium, there is not much of an issue to answer. Resource availability is an interplay between demand, prices, technological development and knowledge. While these are rarely in synch, uranium is plentiful. However, that fact hasn’t stopped the uranium market being out of balance since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For several years, Rogner says, production was at 40% – 60% of the reactor requirement globally. This was because of all the fuel that was stockpiled in the cold war. This reduced the need for exploration and mines closed because they weren’t viable. As nuclear plants in the US were given lifecycle extensions the market began to panic and uranium prices shot through the roof.
“Companies then began pulling 80-year-olds out of retirement – uranium geologists, experts in the field – and now things are returning to normal,” said Rogner.
“Time and again we see these cycles in any resource based industry. You can draw lots of parallels with oil, where the industry starts looking in lower-concentration environments, deploying newer, more expensive technology.
“There are enormous amounts of uranium resources locked in unconventional forms. The ultimate back-stop technology would be extracting uranium from sea water. Through recycling and re-use you can automatically convert and extend the fuel’s life for several hundreds or thousands of years, so scarcity is not really an issue.”
While current economic issues have created problems of all sorts, not just for power, few countries are ready to move ahead with their programmes, though planning for nuclear development is continuing.
“It’s a 15 year process and they know that if they recover from the current economic crisis, they will be faced with capacity problems,” he said.
“We have a 19 point plan which we share with what we call the newcomers. Countries need a nuclear law, they must adhere to all the international agreements and treaties and conventions, otherwise nobody will sell you the technology. You need a regulator, you need a safety culture, you need an educational framework.”
Rogner says it is not unusual for countries to want a high localisation factor, to keep most of the value in the country. Key to achieving that is a home-grown quality workforce.
“These things cannot be done overnight and so a timely plan is necessary. That’s what we try to convey to countries; the scale of what’s necessary to achieve a safe nuclear industry,” said Rogner.
“A domestic support structure is extremely important, but other considerations such as where do I get my fuels from, how do I deal with my waste etc. These do not all have to be in place 10 years before, but they must be on the radar, and be worked towards.”