Nuclear energy has the potential to reduce pollution, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and help countries attain more energy independence. Presently, thirty countries produce and use nuclear energy. Some, like France, produce large portions of their electricity from nuclear power, and others like Brazil and the Netherlands produce small percentages of electricity by nuclear power. Some countries like China are investing heavily into construction of new plants and others like Germany have long term plans to phase out their plants.
The globalized nature of the world today leaves its mark on the nuclear industry. Independent states work together using their technology as diplomacy to help build up new nuclear industries in nations without nuclear power. Other times states work specifically against each other to ensure some actors do not gain access to nuclear technology for safety and security concerns.
Some of these relationships are maintained singly between the individual countries, but the most recognized international agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, also has a large influence over international nuclear cooperation.
To understand the scope of nuclear power in the world, it is useful to understand who the global leaders are in nuclear power production. Overall, the world:
• operates 440 nuclear reactors
• produces 375 Gigawatts of nuclear power (For reference, a light bulb requires 60 watts, so the world could power 6,250,000 bulbs from nuclear power.)
• powers 14% of its total electricity demand through nuclear power
The United States operates 104 nuclear reactors (69 PWR, 35 BWR), producing 101 Gigawatts of power or 30% of the world’s nuclear power production. This makes the US the world’s leading nuclear power producer by quantity. The five countries that produce the most nuclear power are:
1. United States (101 GWe)
2. France (63 GWe)
3. Japan (47 GWe)
4. Russia (23 GWe)
5. South Korea (17 GWe)
While France is the world’s second largest nuclear power producer, French nuclear power accounts for 75% of the country’s total power demand. In addition, France is the world leader in nuclear power exported, reining in over $4.2 billion USD per year in revenue. The US – while being able to completely power France – only meets 20% of its own power need from nuclear sources. Here are the top five countries in terms of percent of total electricity demand met by nuclear:
1. France (75%)
2. Slovakia (53%)
3. Belgium (51%)
4. Ukraine (48%)
5. Hungary (43%)
18. United States (20%) (For comparison)
From this information, it is clear that there are several big producers of nuclear energy that produce a lot of the quantity of nuclear power. The rest of the producers produce much less energy, but account for a greater percentage of total energy used in their respective countries.
The IAEA is an organization made up of 151 international member states. While closely related to the United Nations, it is an independent entity; however, it does present findings and other reports to the UN regularly. These findings can include simple fact-finding reports about development and technology improvement. They also can be recommendations for further action such as sanctions, to influence countries to conform to IAEA guidelines.
The objective of the IAEA according to its founding document is to “seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.”1 The Agency accomplishes this mission by focusing on three realms: Safeguards and Verification, Safety and Security, and Science and Technology.
The IAEA is responsible for verifying the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Their inspectors ensure that member states are not using technology to continue development of nuclear weapons.2 An example of this work is the report that the inspectors have recently published about the uncooperative atmosphere in Iran and Syria with respect to nuclear development programs. The IAEA sent inspectors, but neither Iran nor Syria have been willing to cooperate with the inspections, maintaining that their programs are for energy use only. The IAEA presented this information to the UN and sanctions have been adopted against Iran.
The second major role of the IAEA is to inspect for safety and security. This includes inspecting current energy producing sites, retired power plants, and waste disposal areas.3 Some examples of this role are the recent reports on the Chinese regulatory system, follow-up inspections of the Japanese power plant hit by an earthquake in 2007, and a peer review study on the feasibility and safety of a South Korean site to dispose of nuclear waste.456 In each of these cases, the IAEA provided the international experts to help keep the production of nuclear power clean and safe.
The third way that the IAEA plays a role in the international scene is by promoting cooperation among members so that nuclear energy is constantly moving forward and developing.7 Some examples of this are the many agreements and treaties among countries to help develop nuclear programs in other countries. Agreements between France and Kuwait, the US and the UAE, and Russia and Vietnam are all part of this goal of promoting cooperation.
While the IAEA is an important institution with some power, the real international power lies with the individual countries that produce nuclear energy or are developing a nuclear energy industry. These countries play a major role in the nuclear industry. Some of the important countries are highlighted below.
Besides being the largest operator and producer of nuclear power, the United States is an important factor in almost every branch of international politics.8 The US is both an exporter of nuclear technology/knowledge and a major actor in restricting the technology. In some cases, the US actively shares information with countries developing nuclear programs. The US has signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and other countries to help develop a peaceful nuclear program.9 As a part of these agreements, though the US has made sure that no weapons grade enrichment will happen. Especially under the Obama administration, the US has drifted toward a staunch no-proliferation stance and is ensuring that the technology shared will not result in more states with nuclear weapons in the future.
Also, the United States is looking to increase its domestic production and replace its aging nuclear plants. This is in part driven by a focus on carbon neutral technologies to replace traditional power plants and transportation means. The goal is also to reduce the reliance of the US on foreign sources of energy. Nuclear power and renewable technologies will power homes, industry, and provide some energy for transportation. Currently, the IAEA only recognizes one new power plant being built in the US, but several more are in the process of being approved.
For more insight in the role of public perception of Nuclear Power in the US see Public Perception.
France famously developed a nuclear power system that has become an important part of French identity and culture. France’s fifty-eight nuclear power plants produce around seventy five percent of the country’s electrical power, which is the largest proportion in the world.10 France’s model is based on a national desire to be energy independent and a trust in the CEA (the French regulatory agency) along with the other nuclear professionals to produce nuclear energy safely. The system also is heavily reliant on standardization and central planning which serves as a model for countries developing new nuclear programs. Many nations enviously look to France and its nuclear power production, but there are some setbacks. France still uses carbon-based fuels for transportation and other forms of energy. Therefore, while their electric grid is largely nuclear, their overall energy consumption is something closer to fourteen percent nuclear power.11
Like the US, France is also a player in exporting nuclear energy technology. France has partnered with several countries over the course of the years to help develop nuclear programs similar to the French model.
Currently, Russia is stepping up its domestic production of nuclear power. It has eleven power plants under construction.12 It is investing heavily in both domestic production as well as cooperation with other nations. It is one of the partners helping countries like Kuwait and Vietnam develop their nuclear power industries.
Russia is also a major player because of its role in the UN and its position towards Iran’s nuclear power ambitions. Russia has taken a more cooperative stance towards Iran than many of the other western countries.13 Russia also has vast natural resources and the potential to be a resource powerhouse in the future with possible controls over the nuclear fuel market.
Like in many other parts of the global scene, China is a dominating force in developing new plants. Currently China is constructing twenty-four new power plants with which it will increase its nuclear power production by 25000MW.14 Its demand for nuclear technology has been a main driver for nuclear reactor component producers and has resulted in increased orders instead of shutting plants in some cases.China is attempting to become more self-reliant for its energy needs and cut pollution caused by coal-fired plants. If China is successful in its attempts to increase its nuclear production, it may become a future model for countries to follow in their development schemes.
South Korea is a major investor in new technology and is attempting to become a major exporter of reactors and reactor materials. Its domestic industry is also becoming a major supplier of energy to the bustling South Korean economy. South Korea’s goal is to have 50% of their domestic power come from nuclear sources by 2020.15 Also, South Koreans and Indians are both attempting to develop nuclear technology so that they can export parts made in their respective countries to countries developing new systems.16 They are hoping to turn nuclear power profitable in both power production and selling technology.
The European Union is an interesting entity because it includes nuclear energy producing countries (France) and those adamantly opposed (Austria). The public attitude also differs across the continent.
One of the main concerns of European nations is the safety of old-Soviet plants in Eastern Europe. Over a billion Euros have been invested in making sure another Chernobyl does not happen.17 One specific example is the agreement that allowed Lithuania to enter into the EU. Even though its nuclear power industry supplied close to 80% of its electric production, it closed down its Soviet built plants in 2009.18 The trade off between political connections to Europe was greater than the self-sufficiency of the nuclear plants.
As the EU grows, it will have to face the problems of integrating/upgrading more decrepit reactors in the east and whether to expand or limit the use of nuclear power in the west.19
Some of the issues that plague domestic politics in the US also are common across the globe. Waste management and the issues of reprocessing and storage are universal. Also, the market for uranium could potentially cause future international conflict and other issues such as rogue states require international responses.
In the United States, the problem of storing nuclear waste is a charged political issue. No one wants the waste stored near their homes and towns, and under current regulations spent nuclear fuel cannot be reprocessed into reusable material. This is not just a phenomenon in the US. Public opinion in many countries reflects a common distrust of waste disposal methods.20 Finland, for example, enjoys popular support for nuclear energy among the populace, but a general skepticism about where to store the spent materials.21
Some countries recycle their fuel and reuse it in their nuclear reactors again. This, however, can lead to suspicion of enrichment for nuclear weapons. In addition, the material will eventually need to be stored after being recycled. The question of what to do with the spent material will have to be answered on a domestic and international scale. The nature of the issue, though, leaves most countries, the US included, struggling to find an answer.
To see how waste storage factors into US see the US Domestic Politics Page.
The increasing interest in nuclear power has the potential to cause problems in the uranium market. Some countries produce large amounts of uranium while others have to import. For example, Russia provides Mexico with all of its uranium fuel for its production of nuclear power. While fuel supplies are estimated to last beyond 100 years, if the sixty countries expressing interest in nuclear power all develop some form of nuclear power, the nuclear materials market has potential to overheat and become bloated.22 There is also concern about the ability of mines to be constructed in a safe and efficient manner while still keeping up with demand. While this is a distant problem, foundations for the market and potential problems are already being addressed by the IAEA.
To see a case study of Uranium Mining click here.
The most visible and significant international problem is without a doubt the issue of states that are pursuing nuclear power without the support of countries like the US and countries in Western Europe. Syria and Iran are the most notable examples. There is suspicion in the West that oil rich Iran is pursuing nuclear technology just so it can develop a bomb and target Israel or other regional powers.
Iran has thwarted IAEA inspections and UN sanctions while continuing to pursue nuclear power. The UN has imposed several rounds of sanctions trying to persuade Iran to abandon enriching nuclear materials. Several countries have tried to reach out to Iran to help them produce nuclear power under direct supervision. Russia and France offered to export enriched uranium to Iran to be used in their reactor. Iran chose to keep pursuing their own technology. Turkey and Brazil likewise offered assistance to Iran to help them produce nuclear power, which resulted in an agreement to work together.
Other states like the United States and Israel have taken a firm stance against the Iranian nuclear program and have threatened even more sanctions and possible military action.23 These states that are against Iran have also undermined the program in other ways. Recently, Iranian industrial plants were attacked by a computer virus meant to shut down production. The consensus is that the Iranian nuclear power plant was the target and the virus meant to disrupt the development of the site and that the virus was probably developed by a government entity.24
As the situation in Iran shows, the international relationships between countries concerning nuclear power are complex and involved. The many different actors are all working to achieve their own goals. Iran desires a nuclear power program, and has found some countries who want to help it, while others oppose it. This is repeated the world over in each country with nuclear power or those developing it. Some international actors try to use their technology to promote and develop nuclear power but others, for various reasons, try to oppose it.
As the world marches forward pursuing nuclear power, the international aspect of the industry will only become increasingly important. Cooperation and reliance between countries for safety and security will be essential. The countries new to nuclear power will rely on the experience of those who have developed it for decades and those who are currently pouring billions of dollars into research. Nations will also have to rely on each other to not develop weapons or target nuclear power plants for inflicting terror. These complex issues will have to be figured out as the industry develops.
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