April 19, 2009

Officials Discuss Nuclear Energy Amid Slowing Global Economy

The global economic slowdown is unlikely to dampen long-term demand for new nuclear power plants, said officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Sunday on the eve of talks about the future of nuclear energy.

IAEA officials are gathering in Beijing with national and international energy representatives to discuss climate change, atomic power prospects during the global financial crisis, concerns over nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and other energy issues.

Thierry Dujardin, a deputy director of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, said that while the economic slowdown is making it more challenging to fund some proposed nuclear power plants, longer-term concerns about global warming and energy security will likely buffer the impact of the crisis on the sector.

"In the short term, it's obvious that it will be more difficult to find the funding for new investments, heavy investment, in energy infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants," Dujardin said during a news conference with reporters.

"There is a chance that nuclear energy as such will not be so strongly impacted by the current economic crisis, because the need for energy will be there."

Dong Batong of China's atomic energy industry association said China was committed to significantly expanding nuclear power, despite its slowing growth.

"We've made nuclear power an important measure for stimulating domestic demand," Dong told the news conference.
Several new nuclear units are being built or planned throughout China, he added. 

According to the IAEA, nuclear power now comprises 14 percent of total global electricity supplies, and the number is expected to grow as nations seek to limit fuel costs and the greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the predicted expansion is in Asia.

As of the end of August 2008, China ranked first in terms of nuclear power plants under construction, at 5,220 megawatts (MW).  India rated second at 2,910 MW, followed by South Korea at 2,880 MW, according to the International Energy Agency.

However, aggressive plans for the growth of nuclear power throughout the developing world also risks straining safety standards and current safeguards against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Yuri Sokolov, deputy director-general of the Vienna-based IAEA, said nations considering expanding nuclear energy must ensure regulators are supported by meaningful legislation and adequately trained staff.

Sokolov said even North Korea has the right to nuclear power plants, despite the fact it faces international censure for recently launching a long-range rocket and walking away from nuclear disarmament negotiations.

"Each country is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program," Sokolov said, however, he acknowledged that North Korea represents a "difficult situation."

"If it's ready to cooperate with the international community, I think that the international community will be able to provide the support for civil nuclear power development in North Korea," he said.

North Korea relinquished its IAEA membership years ago.  Last week, the nation expelled IAEA officials who were monitoring a shuttered nuclear compound that North Korea has said it will now restart.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, will address the nuclear energy conference in an opening speech on Monday.


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