A sustainable agenda1 April 2000
Gerald Doucet, general secretary of the World Energy Council, sees nuclear power as key to achieving a sustainable energy supply. He spoke to NEI about how he sees the nuclear industry developing in the 21st century.
Gerald Doucet is exasperated. He believes nuclear power is vital if the world is to provide all its citizens with the energy they need to live decent lives. The World Energy Council (WEC) mission is to “promote the sustainable supply and use of all forms of energy for the greatest benefit of all.” This is not possible without nuclear power playing a role in both the developed and developing countries.
But the industry has an extraordinary ability to shoot itself in the foot. The events at Tokai-mura in Japan and over MOX fuel production at Sellafield in the last six months have done a lot of damage to the industry’s credibility.
“It’s so unfortunate,” says Doucet. “You establish good standards and then there are these stupidities in terms of process, public information and in business management; it’s really regrettable. If we could have ten years of smoothly functioning plants, we could work on this public perception problem. But this sets us back so far.”
In both the Tokai-mura and Sellafield incidents, employees failed to follow proper procedures. This, says Doucet, makes them both management issues. That workers were allowed to take the short-cuts reflects problems within the corporate culture. Doucet argues these failings are due to the industry’s youth and resultant naivete.
With little more than 30 years experience, the industry is youthful both technologically and organisationally. Its dependence on the state reflects this.
“It has been a secretive, cocoon-like, engineer talking to engineer business. As British Energy chief executive Peter Hollins has said, it must get onto a normal business footing, focusing on economics and on the needs of its customers. Competition and market reforms mean the leadership has to focus on safety and customer perceptions.”
The concept that privatisation and competition improves safety standards is one which is still open to debate. In the UK the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate recently warned British Energy that its programme of reducing staffing levels risked compromising safety (See NEI, September 1999 p2). And the Tokai-mura accident happened because operators were cutting corners.
“You will always find businesses under pressure and tempted to ignore regulations,” says Doucet. “But that is done at their peril. With any global player the chief executive is concerned with safety, with environmental issues and customer needs.”
The WEC was formed in 1923 and has evolved into “the only multi-energy organisation in the world.” It has a presence in about 100 countries and 92% of world energy consumption is represented by its membership. The WEC analyses global, regional and local energy and energy related issues. It produces regular statements, studies and reports. It also holds the World Energy Congress every three years.
The organisation’s stated aim is to work towards the elimination of energy poverty. Two billion of the world’s six billion people do not have access to electricity. Without sufficient energy resources it is impossible to escape from the poverty trap. Doucet believes the development of the nuclear industry worldwide is vital to this aim.
“We fundamentally disagree with anyone who argues that you can arbitrarily take nuclear power off the table and sustainably meet the growth in energy demand.”
But for nuclear power to make the kind of contribution to the goal of sustainable energy supplies that it is capable of, the industry has to get more involved in the global energy debate.
“The nuclear industry, being defensive, has been grasping at plant life extension, and that will buy time,” says Doucet. “But I think that strategy is wrong – we need to tell it like it is and address public issues now.
“The industry has some strong cards to play. One is the digital information society, where the reliability and evenness of electricity supply is critical. There is a premium people will be willing to pay for stable supply. And fossil fuels will be incorporating a carbon cost within this decade. As a result, fossil fuel pricing will change relative to nuclear power.”
But the nuclear industry would be complacent to assume global warming will guarantee its future. Doucet argues the fossil fuel industry is moving fast to develop mitigation techniques to reduce its impact on the global atmosphere. The nuclear industry also has the major problem of waste, which it must solve if it is to address the problem of public perception and get itself into a position where it can again grow in developed countries.
A necessary debate
In the developing world there is clearly a desperate need for energy supplies and Doucet argues that nuclear power has to be a part of poorer nations’ energy programmes. In particular he believes the pebble bed reactor, which has been developed by the South African utility Eskom, has real potential as it is smaller than the advanced designs developed in Europe and the United States (see NEI, October 1998, p49). This makes it more affordable for poor nations.
“The design also has many safety benefits,” he said. “If nuclear power can’t find a way to play an economic role in developing countries, then the industry’s stagnation will spread.”
To compete successfully with other forms of power generation, the WEC has set a generation cost of 2.5 to 3 US cents per kWh; a figure that includes all storage and future building costs. Plant building times must also be cut, to a maximum of four years. The WEC believes these targets are achievable.
Doucet wants a global debate on future energy provision. Energy policies affect all areas of economic development, are central to alleviating poverty and wealth creation and it is clear some vital decisions will have to be made soon. To be part of the future the nuclear industry has to be involved in this debate, but to do that it has take responsibility for its actions, openly discuss its problems and potential solutions and show that it can survive in a commercial environment.
In promoting this debate the WEC is organising a two-week long conference on energy issues, which will take place on the Internet in May. Titled Energyresource 2000, the conference will explore all aspects of energy provision, including nuclear power, as well as key business issues. As well as papers, there will be chat rooms where discussion of various issues can take place.
Details can be found at