The most compelling moral and ethical issue of the twenty-first century will be the struggle of the poorer countries for a good quality of life. At the same time, they will have to cope with a huge population increase. Social and political changes will sweep the world. There will be a rapid growth in ideas in all fields of science and technology. Central to all other change in society will be the world demand for energy, which will continue to grow, driven by
The prospect of abundant energy to serve humanity came a step closer to reality in the mid-twentieth century with the discovery of the properties of the nucleus and the achievement of sustained nuclear fission.
The world's population is increasing by almost 100 million each year, mainly in the poorer countries. It is expected to double by the middle of the twenty-first century to well over 10 billion people. During that period, the hoped-for decrease in birth rates will likely be offset by increased life expectancy as medical care improves. Demographers project that nothing will stop the population increase, short of a disastrous global epidemic affecting hundreds of millions of people.
The quality of life is related to the wealth of society. Wealth is created through the use of energy to do work. For most of human history, that energy came from humans and animals, augmented by what could be gleaned from the wind and water. Slavery flourished because it was a way to harness human energy. In the last two centuries, commercial energy has replaced human and animal energy, and the citizens of many countries today have a better quality of life than did the wealthiest people of the past with their many slaves. They are healthier and live longer than any others at any time in the history of civilization. Unfortunately, the scourges of hunger, disease, and debilitating poverty still abound in many of the poorer countries. Compared with the richer countries, these use about one-tenth as much energy per person. They need more energy to overcome these scourges.
There will be advances in using energy more efficiently, but this alone will be insufficient to meet the demand. A number of different perspectives all point to the conclusion that about 1000 EJ of energy will be consumed by the world each year in the middle of the next century-almost three times as much as is used today. For example, from a social perspective, the quality of life in the poorer countries could be enhanced greatly if their energy consumption were to increase fivefold to about 100 GJ per person. This would bring them to about half of today's average for the rest of the world and to a level where life expectancy and economic activity should be comparable to that for richer countries (Ref.1,2). If that were achieved, then the energy demand of a world of 10 billion people would be 1000 EJ. From a historical perspective, world energy demand has increased at a steady overall average of 2.3% per year for the last 200 years (Ref.3). If that growth continued, the world would need 1500 EJ in 2050. And from a planning perspective, forecasts made by individual nations lead the World Energy Council to project a world demand of 650 to 1200 EJ in 2050 (Ref.4). This forecast brackets the range of available estimates and reinforces the choice of a round figure of 1000 EJ.
Chemical energy from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) accounts for 80% of global energy use (Ref.5). Energy experts predict that the use of fossil fuels will increase and that within a half century, there will be enough fossil fuel reserves to support an increase in use. Historical experience with minerals of all types indicates that more reserves are discovered as the need arises. Nevertheless, there is considerable uncertainty about the amounts of both fossil fuels and uranium that will be discovered in the future. In addition, growing concerns about the adverse environmental effects of emissions from burning fossil fuels will likely limit their increased use. Thus, prudence suggests that the energy industries should continue to develop options for future energy supply.
For the last 130 years, the use of all energy forms, such as wood, coal, and oil, has followed a similar pattern. Their use grows faster and faster once they are introduced commercially until eventually their share of the market peaks and a newer energy form then takes over (Ref.3). The market shares held by coal and oil are already declining, while those held by natural gas and nuclear power are rising. If this pattern continues into the future, then natural gas and nuclear will be the dominant energy sources by 2050. All fossil fuels together would account for 50 to 60% of the world's use, with nuclear supplying the balance.
As to other energy sources, hydroelectricity is the only renewable energy used commercially. However, the total amount of hydro power production is limited to about double today's level, even if all hydro sites were developed. Thus, hydroelectricity could supply only about 2% of the future demand. Biomass energy, a renewable chemical energy, is not commercially significant in the global economy but is very important in poorer countries. Its contribution might be doubled by intensive agricultural and forest management and the use of chemical fertilizers. It could then account for about 12% of the future demand. Despite the enormous incentives that have motivated the search for other renewable energies, such as wind and direct solar energy, none are yet in commercial use. The prospect of harnessing the sun's energy has spurred a number of recent advances (Ref.6) and will continue to attract ingenuity that may well lead to economical solar energy. However, given the very diffuse nature of solar and wind energy, most energy experts believe that these options will not likely make a major contribution in the foreseeable future.
Nuclear power accounts for about 7% of the world's energy, virtually all for the production of electricity. The basic nuclear fuels, uranium and thorium, abound in the earth's crust, and with currently known technology, there is plenty of nuclear fuel to supply the future global demand for thousands of years. With the constraints of environment and the limitations of other fuel resources, we envision that nuclear power will be called upon to provide a much higher fraction of the growing energy demand.
Worldwide, the fraction of energy used as electricity has doubled over the last 30 years and is now about one-third of all energy consumed. This gain in market share over other energy forms has taken place because electricity is economical, convenient to use, clean, and environmentally attractive. The trend is likely to continue. Nuclear power fits naturally into this trend because it is cheaper when used on a large scale, such as for generating electricity.
The size of the task ahead can be seen by examining the scale of demand for nuclear power. Early in the next century there could be a demand for the construction of thirty to fifty 1000-MWe plants each year (30 to 50 GWe of generating capacity). By the middle of the next century, the need for new and replacement plant would require the construction of about 100 GWe per year. That is considerably more than the world maximum rate of construction achieved to date, but it is feasible with the technology and the industrial capacity available. It does require a complete shift away from conventional design and construction methods to Henry Ford-style product engineering and mass production. To some, this may seem unlikely, given the current lack of interest in nuclear plants in the Western world. However, major expansion will be achieved, particularly in those countries that have the need, such as China and other countries of the Western Pacific. Such expansion is vital if the massive energy demand is to be met in an environmentally acceptable manner.
The availability of capital will be a critical factor. However, to put this in perspective, the amount required is a fraction of recent global military expenditures. Thus, if there can be a will to have military expenditures of this order, then a similar determination can provide abundant energy for the world. Nevertheless, we recognize that it will be a difficult political decision locally. More likely, much of the capital will be raised from the investment community wherever the economic case can be made. Raising the capital will have to be done in competition with conventional fuels such as natural gas, which is currently cheaper and has large reserves already identified. The competitive pressure will lead to lower capital and operating costs for nuclear plants. Government thrusts to legislate that all industry bear the full environmental costs of its operation may lead to a carbon tax on fossil fuels in the industrialized countries, to the advantage of nuclear power. However, such a tax is unlikely in countries that are at the lower end of the economic scale and endeavoring to industrialize and develop their economies. Thus, nuclear power will continue to find its largest market in the more developed countries until the capital costs are reduced substantially.
As in any other technology, there will be accidents. However, in the last decade there has been a continual improvement in safety through vigorous efforts by utilities and strong international cooperation. It is unlikely that there will be another major accident that releases large amounts of radioactive materials to the environment on the scale of Chernobyl. The industry, worldwide, will continue to focus on safety culture because of its own economic interests. It is also mindful that another release such as Chernobyl might destroy the public acceptance required for nuclear power to fulfill its promise of abundant energy for the world.
As for all other energy sources, economics will be the dominant factor in the market share that will go to nuclear power. Nuclear power is made by machines that are inherently more complex and cost more to build than electricity generating plants that use fossil fuels. Thus, to be competitive, nuclear fuel must be considerably cheaper than chemical fuels. This has been the case to date in most locations and is likely to remain so, given the very large reserves of low-cost uranium in widely scattered parts of the world. The nuclear industry is expending a major effort to hold down the capital and operating costs of nuclear plants. Nevertheless, much larger reductions in capital cost will be required to make nuclear power available on a global scale. Nuclear power faces increasing regulatory and environmental pressures. Those same pressures will also increase the capital and operating costs of the fossil-fueled plants. However, it will not help the poorer countries if regulation and environmental controls drive the cost of all energy options beyond their reach.
Safety and costs will become the most important operating factors, resulting in continued good plant performance. Based on their performance so far, the current generation of so-called thermal reactors-the pressurized water reactor (PWR), the boiling water reactor (BWR), and the CANDU heavy water reactor-will continue to dominate the nuclear-electric marketplace. Evolutionary changes in design can be expected, leading to more tolerant systems from the standpoint of safety. Passive safety features will be used as their designs become economical. New reactor concepts will be introduced as their economics and safety are demonstrated.
While nuclear power is well proven and the foundation has been laid for a greatly expanded international nuclear program, there remains one issue in particular that must be resolved before this expansion will take place. Apart from good economics, energy companies and the public need assurance that everything is in place to handle the radioactive waste from uranium mining, from operation and decommissioning of the reactors and fuel cycle facilities, and from all other uses of radioactive substances. This topic is an emotive one and central to the future of nuclear power as a sustainable technology. The issue is further complicated by the fact that vast amounts of energy remain in the spent fuel from reactors, and this can only be recovered by recycling-a step that is not economical today. Yet, of all the energy-producing industries, the nuclear industry is the only one that has taken full responsibility for the disposal of all its waste and pays the full cost of doing so. Fortunately, in recent decades there has been much progress in many countries toward the disposal of radioactive waste, and many studies have shown that safe disposal is technologically and economically achievable. Sensible decisions will be needed on the demonstration of the technology and siting for disposal, balancing risks and benefits in the public interest. Resolution of the issue will require the cooperative and determined efforts of the industry, regulators, and politicians. The demonstration and use of this technology will lead to public reassurance on its safety.
The promise of nuclear power is abundant energy for centuries. For example, the natural uranium in today's nuclear power plants accounts for about 1% of the total power cost. Increasing the price of uranium by one hundred times would only double the power cost. This insensitivity of energy cost to the basic resource cost is a unique feature of nuclear power and puts a cap on the ultimate cost of energy, even when low-grade ores are used.
Recent studies have compared fuel recycle in thermal reactors with the once-through system in which fresh uranium is used and the spent fuel is discarded (Ref.7). These studies indicate that recycle is not expected to have an economic advantage in the beginning of the next century, even at double the current price of uranium. Unless recycle costs drop significantly or uranium prices rise by severalfold, the first choice of utilities will be simply to store the used fuel.
Uranium is an international commodity, and its price has been very low in the last decade because of a glut of low-cost material on the world market. Consequently, there has been a reduction in production, very little uranium exploration, and virtually no development of processes for recovery from low-grade resources. The current ratio of low-cost resources to annual production is about 30 (Ref.8), typical of the reserves-to-production ratio value for oil consistently in the last 50 years. Experience in the oil and gas industries has been that demand stimulates exploration, with the result that reserves continue to increase significantly despite continuing consumption (Ref.5). A similar pattern may emerge for uranium, in which case there will be ample low-cost uranium to fuel a massive increase in capacity. However, such a pattern is by no means assured.
Thermal reactors make use of only a small fraction of the uranium. However, there is no doubt that the strategic importance of nuclear fission, from a sustainable energy perspective, is the ability to extend resources indefinitely by recycling the fuel. A different technology in the fast breeder reactor (FBR) offers the potential of extracting a very much higher fraction of the energy available in the uranium and extending the natural resource base for centuries. Thermal reactors using thorium fuels can also extract a much higher energy fraction. Development of the fast reactor and optimization of the recycling processes have been conducted in a number of countries for several decades. Worldwide, the development has already reached the large-scale demonstration phase. There are indications that plutonium recycle in fast reactors will become competitive with the thermal reactors by the next phase of demonstration plants (Ref.9,10).
Whether large-scale fuel recycling will be a feature of global nuclear power production over the next 50 years will depend on how much the cost of reprocessing and recycling can be reduced and on how much more low-cost uranium is discovered as the demand rises. In the meantime, reprocessing of thermal reactor fuel will continue in some countries, either to stockpile fuel for future fast reactors or to allow the disposal of fission product waste while keeping the recycling option open for the future. The technology of all aspects of fuel recycling has already been demonstrated on a large scale. Several countries have ongoing development programs for fast reactors to assure themselves of strategic security of fuel supply. These will continue, provided that funding remains available, until the technology is economically competitive. The commercial use of fast reactors will be first and foremost a question of economics, depending primarily on the technology development of fast reactors and fuel recycling and on the availability and price of uranium.
If the fast reactor technology proves to be uneconomical, an alternative for the production of fissile material is through accelerator-driven spallation reactors. These would use beams of high-energy protons (typically 1 to 2 GeV at up to 100 milliamperes) to bombard a heavy-metal target, such as a lead-bismuth eutectic. The spallation reaction produces up to forty neutrons per proton collision, and absorption of these neutrons in thorium produces fissionable uranium-233 for use in conventional thermal reactors. The system offers the advantages of less chemically reactive materials than the sodium of the fast reactor and a subcritical assembly rather than a critical fast neutron system, but the accelerator technology is challenging.
Most of the global nuclear power production for the next 50 years will likely be supplied by thermal reactors. Steady efforts for the development and introduction of plutonium-fueled fast reactors are important to meet the world energy demand in the future, although they are not likely to achieve a dominant market share in the next 50 years.
Fusion holds the ultimate promise of unlimited fuel supply, drawing deuterium from the waters of the world. Research has been under way for half a century and is continuing. However, the science and technology have proven to be extremely challenging. The very high temperatures that are thought to be necessary to induce the fusion reaction have required unique approaches to heating and confining the hot fusion fuel. The combination of a difficult technology and the economic problems of most industrialized countries has led to a reduction in funding for fusion research. With the knowledge available at this time, it appears that the cost of competing energy sources, including fission, would have to increase very significantly for fusion to be economically attractive. Because a sustainable fusion reaction has not yet produced a net gain in energy, it is unlikely that fusion will be significant in the energy market 50 years hence.
International cooperation in the use of nuclear power will be essential. Bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Association of Nuclear Operators, the INSC, the Pacific Nuclear Council, and the World Bank have already been successful in achieving cooperation. They will continue to be important in steering, assisting, and training the developing countries as they launch their nuclear power programs. Such bodies will monitor the quality of construction and operation to ensure safe operation. The world will also need to be satisfied that adequate controls exist to prevent nuclear materials, particularly plutonium, from being used for nonpeaceful purposes. A basic premise of international efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been that the provision of a plentiful supply of energy leads to a higher standard of living, which in turn is a major factor leading to world stability and peace. Besides providing assistance, all nations will be called upon to provide the political will and resources to ensure that the technology is used only for peaceful purposes.
One of the major impediments to expanding the use of nuclear power at the end of the twentieth century has been a lack of public acceptance. The public perceives that the risks of nuclear power are high-much higher than calculated by experts in the field. As a result, the risk is accepted only when there is also a perception of great need for the energy. When other energy supplies, such as natural gas, are plentiful and cheap, the public does not believe that nuclear power is worth the risk. The challenge for the nuclear industry will be to understand the forces that drive the risk perception gap, many of which are nontechnical in nature, and to strive to bring the public's perception of the risk more into line with the industry's. If this can be accomplished, nuclear power will become the energy of choice because of its low overall risk, great availability, and relatively low and stable cost.
The most likely new market for nuclear power is heat for industrial, residential, and commercial uses. Several countries have already developed reactors such as the helium-cooled reactor specifically for high-temperature industrial heat. However, most factories need relatively small amounts of energy, and small nuclear units are not competitive with cheap and abundant natural gas. Simplicity of design and self-regulating characteristics will be the keys to the competitiveness of smaller units. Meanwhile, there are already a number of energy centres in which businesses around a generating station share low-cost heat from large nuclear units.
Hydrogen is commonly regarded as the ultimate energy carrier because of its high heat value, transportability, and the absence of polluting combustion products. It is uneconomical today, but it may well become significant, with production at first through the use of high-temperature reactors to reform natural gas and later by using nuclear electricity to electrolyze water. Within 50 years, very large nuclear stations could produce vast quantities of nonpolluting energy as electricity for general use and as hydrogen for transportation.
Fresh water is a vital resource that will become increasingly scarce in many parts of the world. Huge urban centres will look to very large scale desalination projects. At this scale of operation, nuclear power will be able to provide fresh water economically and reliably.
Other advances in energy use may well increase the need for nuclear power, for example, in the direct conversion of ores and minerals to new materials, the substitution of traditional materials by newer materials, or by new ways of doing things. Nuclear power may be used in transportation, particularly for surface and submarine ocean shipping. Breakthroughs might make practical the use of very small nuclear generators. Data transmission is already being performed globally using satellites instead of cables and wires. It is conceivable that such technology might be expanded to the transmission of large quantities of energy around the world, allowing the production of energy in one location and its use in a totally different region.
Enormous strides have been taken in other fields of nuclear science and technology in the last 50 years. Great improvements have been made in the use of radioisotopes and radiation-emitting machines in medical diagnostics and cancer treatment, in basic scientific research, and in agriculture. We can expect this growth to continue rapidly. What is now a special application could become an everyday application in an everyday environment. Agricultural advances will be used in the garden; irradiated food will be commonplace; pests will be eliminated on a regional scale.
Radiation treatment is likely to become a major industrial process. It is already used in the manufacture of composite materials, and new applications will arise for these light-weight, high-strength materials. It is likely that a large array of consumer and industrial products will be made using radiation processing.
One of the most important uses of nuclear radiation will be in the preservation of food. Malnutrition is rampant in many parts of the world today and stems not only from marginal food production but also from the fact that a large fraction of the food produced becomes infested and lost to bacteria and insects. Eliminating this wastage by using radiation could effectively double the availability of food from current production. The technology is available, but the process is not yet used widely, even in the industrialized countries because of public concerns. As its benefits and safety become more widely accepted, it will be in general use worldwide for the next 50 years.
The latest review (Ref.11) by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) of scientific data on adaptive responses to radiation in cells and organisms confirms that there is no significant increase in mortality (and much significant statistical evidence of decreased mortality) for populations exposed to low doses of radiation (below about 20 to 40 centigrays). Some scientific reviews of the evidence (Ref.12) conclude that there is even a benefit to be gained from low to moderate radiation doses. This could have enormous implications for low-cost preventive and therapeutic health treatments. Such results would lead eventually to a shift in the public perception of the health effects of radiation. Given confirmation of such results, the controlled application of low-level radiation could be expanded as effective routine medical procedures.
Because growth in one technology depends heavily on growth in others, particularly in the development of new materials, it is probable that new applications of radiation and radioactive sources will arise that have hitherto been unheard of. Bioengineering and the development of synthetic materials are also growth fields. Is it conceivable that new shielding materials just a few millimetres thick could replace the bulky lead and hydrogenous materials of today? Given such an advance, new applications abound in the home, in leisure, in transport, and in manufacturing. Theoretical physics may well bring new understandings comparable to those of the past in which the General Theory of Relativity came to be accepted and confirmed. It is possible that a Grand Unified Field Theory, to reconcile the Theory of Relativity with quantum mechanics, will become a reality. Such an advance could well lead to better understanding of the mechanisms of fusion and eventually a practical development of fusion power facilities. Fission of lighter elements might produce new and valuable radioactive tools.
Any vision of the next 50 years demands a leap of faith-it implies going beyond what we know and can do today and finding a pathway to a better life for the peoples of the world, even as the population continues to increase dramatically. With vision, all kinds of possibilities and new social opportunities are within grasp. While the pathway cannot be seen clearly today, scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs of the future will undoubtedly find it-a pathway beyond today's business and politics, inventing things and generating new benefits for the world.
That world of the mid-twenty-first century will need vastly more energy than today's, and it will need a variety of ways to supply energy in an economical and environmentally sustainable manner. Nuclear energy will be vital in this energy mix. It must continue to demonstrate safe operation and economic competitiveness. Other applications of nuclear energy will also have a major impact on improving quality of life in health care, food production, and industrial production.
Our vision of nuclear science and technology is a vision of hope for all humanity.
(To be continued)
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