It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Symposium of the Uranium Institute. The symposium has been help every year since the Institute's foundation in 1975 and remains an essential part of its programme. The Institute was originally founded to provide a forum for the buyers and sellers of uranium, because it is a specialised market. While this remains an important element of its work, it has gradually extended its brief towards explaining nuclear power to the wider world. The reason for this is that the nuclear industry faces a great many challenges in overcoming critics who are sceptical of its ambition to provide a more significant part of the world's energy. The industry must be able to put forward arguments which are intellectually respectable and have been tested on an educated audience, including those from outside its membership.
Our Annual Symposium is part of this important process. Presenters have the opportunity to develop their arguments and cases and offer practical solutions to perceived problems for the industry. Alternative courses of action are often advocated and we seek to encourage a lively debate among participants, both here in the conference hall and outside in the corridors. One of the strengths of the Institute is its worldwide coverage, and I am pleased to report that we have delegates not only from countries which are already actively involved in nuclear power, but also from some of those which are today considering participation.
Interest in civil nuclear power has of course arisen because of mankind's demand for energy, to power economy growth and raise living standards. Although nuclear power has provided material for academic debates among some of the finest scientific minds of the century, it is in fact an intensely practical subject. The interest of industry managers is to provide a product which society depends upon. Some of our strongest critics, however, appear unable to accept that the application of science can provide a route to the advancement of society.
The nuclear sector is not alone here, as many other industries including other energy providers come under a similar attack. At the extreme, some critics appear set on pushing us back to the pre-industrial era. We cannot accept this judgement, although we must acknowledge that mistakes have been made during the industrial era, particularly with regard to protection of the environment. People have clearly benefited from the economic growth which has occurred, and the increasing supply of energy and in particular of nuclear power in the last 40 years has played a major part in this rising prosperity.
But a high standard of living is still only available today to a minority of the world's people. The developing countries are seeking economic growth to improve the living standards of their populations, and energy supply is one of their key requirements. Although financing is often a problem there is another important factor which we must consider for the future. This is that the world will not be able to utilise energy sources in the same way as the industrialised world has over the past two centuries.
Fossil fuel resources may appear both cheap and abundant at present, but cannot be relied upon at present costs in the future. Economic development must be sustainable into the long term and such resources are clearly finite. More recently the environmental consequences of exploiting fossil fuels have been the focus of attention. There undoubtedly remain some gaps in our understanding of the dynamics of climate change, but the finger is now being pointed very firmly at the role played by fossil fuels.
The external costs of fossil fuel use are now under closer scrutiny. Alternatives are needed in order to sustain the world's energy supplies in the future. Great hopes are placed on the renewable sources of energy, but it will take many years before these can play a significant role and most are not suitable for baseload electricity generation. This point seems not to be fully appreciated by the general public. This provides nuclear power with a window of opportunity, given its environmental advantages with respect to the absence of carbon emissions.
It is apparent that for many countries targets for the limitation of carbon dioxide emissions cannot be met without an increased role for nuclear power. The nuclear industry is busy trying to urge general understanding and acceptance of this point. However, this is only an initial stage. Many existing reactors are now middle aged, while new orders are few and far between. Given expected growth rates in world electricity demand until 2020, unless there is an up turn in new orders for nuclear plants by 2010, the nuclear share will almost certainly fall shortly from its current level of 17%, when it should be close to 30% to meet plans for greenhouse gas limitation.
Our first objective must therefore be to demonstrate that nuclear plants can fit into the new world of restructured energy and electricity markets. This is a significant challenge, but it can be accomplished. Most of the existing plants demonstrate that they can compete successfully in competitive electricity markets, while satisfying the major concerns on safety, waste management, and non-proliferation of fissile materials. The industry has solutions in each of these areas, but in many countries it has yet to convince the wider public, especially with regard to waste disposal. It is ready to submit to all reasonable environmental impact assessments of its operations. The industry is confident, therefore, that most plants will run to at least the end of their currently licensed lives, with many continuing much longer when granted licence extensions.
But another important task is to make sure that the demand for incremental and replacement generation capacity becomes apparent, and to make sure that nuclear plants are truly viable competitors for the new orders which this demand will bring. Although some within the industry are placing hopes on the economic balance being improved by the incorporation of external costs of other power generation modes, this may prove over optimistic, especially in the short term with low fossil fuel prices.
The industry must do more to help itself, in particular it should do all it can to get the capital cost of new nuclear plants down, by standardising designs and components, and cutting construction lead times. With regard to operating costs, improved operating performances by existing plants provide confidence that plants can run for long periods at competitive levels. Nevertheless, the industry has many people to convince, notably the bankers who are now prominent at this time of privatisation of energy markets.
All in all the nuclear industry should have a dynamic vision of its future. Its objective is clearly to supply a growing proportion of the world's electricity. I am confident that this can be accomplished and that the industry can enter a renewed period of growth in the early years of the next century. Many of the papers presented during the Symposium deal with aspects of meeting these future challenges, and I commend them to your attention.
© copyright The Uranium Institute 1998 SYM9798