Categories: Energy Article 4

Electric Energy and the Environment

Hans Blix*
International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria
*Corresponding author

EPL, Vol.18, Iss.6, pp.200-207, 1988


Delivered at the International Summer College in Sopron, Hungary in July 1988 by Hans Blix who was Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997 and guided the Agency through the Chernobyl disaster


The theme of this International Summer College is environmental protection and industrial development. While the need for industrial development has long been understood as vital for the achievement of higher standards of living, it is lamentably late in the day that the world has discovered the necessity for environmental protection and the current situation is in some respects alarming.

While chemical industries, agriculture and overpopulation are central themes, I shall discuss energy production, which is necessary if we want development, and which has had and continues to have a very significant impact on the environment. I shall try to give you some perspective on the issue energy - environment. The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has the mandate to promote one source of energy, that is nuclear power, but it has a professional overview and knowledge also about the alternatives to nuclear power. I shall start with three propositions:

  •  First, that the world will need more energy - not least electric energy. Energy savings and possible modifications in lifestyles will not be enough to compensate for new needs, at least over the next 20 to 30 years;
  • Second, that our choice of energy mixes is one of the important factors which will decide what future environmental risk and damage we shall live with;
  •  Third, that nuclear power offers us one of the most environmentally benign sources of energy generation. I am saying this in full awareness of the Chernobyl accident, about which I shall soon speak in some detail.

Let me tell you at the outset that I became a supporter of nuclear power because of my concern for the environment. As early as the 1970s, thousands of lakes died biologically in Sweden as a result of acid rains, largely caused by the burning of oil and coal. I concluded that nuclear power, which has no such effects, was preferable to a further expanded use of these fossil fuels. When I was a Foreign Minister, I stated in the Swedish Parliament in 1979: "While the arsenals of nuclear weapons threaten the biological life of the earth with sudden extinction, environmental pollution and the plundering of resources foreshadow the possibility of slow extermination. Our generation must bear in mind that the world does not belong to us but we belong to it, and that we must not hand on the coming generations a poisoned and impoverished earth." Although the accident in Chernobyl in 1986 had significant environmental consequences - and I have seen them with my own eyes - the accident has not changed my view that nuclear power is an environmentally benign source of energy in comparison with other available options to generate electricity.

I am aware that this view would be disputed by many who feel strongly about the environment. They will express concern about future risks with radioactive waste, and they will regard the risk of nuclear plant accidents as unacceptable. They will not deny that fossil fuels are having disastrous environmental effects, but they will say that such significant energy savings can be made that no expanded production of energy by use of uranium or fossil fuel will be needed. They will contend also that socalled alternative sources - wind, solar, biomass - can be substituted for oil and current nuclear power. I am not going to suggest to you that nuclear generation of electricity is without any risks, but I shall try to offer you some perspective on these risks. It is simply not meaningful to consider the risks connected with nuclear power in isolation. If you have concluded that you need more electricity, you must compare the environmental risks associated with the different ways of producing that additional electricity.

Last year a report, commissioned by the United Nations, was published which is a good example of a well intentioned but in my view regrettably unrealistic approach to the energy issues. I am referring to the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. It is a very serious document and I agree with much in it. It does not try to suggest that we should all go Rousseauan - back to nature - but states realistically that further growth is needed if we are to diminish the present inequalities and injustices in the world. Discussing energy, it states that an increase in the burning of fossil fuels is problematic because of the increasing certainty that this would significantly contribute to a "greenhouse effect", i.e., a higher temperature in the world's atmosphere. The only solution the Commission gives, however, is a reference to an undefined "low-energy path" and a statement that by the year 2050 we may obtain the energy services that will be needed with only half of the primary energy which the world now uses. I cannot contradict this contention. I cannot even guess what the energy demands will be in 2050. But I can see that even with the conservation measures which have been taken in the last decade and which have effectively helped to bring about a levelling-off, and in some cases even a reduction, in consumption of primary energy, electricity consumption has continued to rise. The result has been that the dependence on oil in many countries has lessened, as was desired, and oil prices have gone down. However, as economic and social development demands continue in the future, an increased demand for electricity is bound to follow. At present, the consumption of electricity varies strongly between industrial States. Thus, Norway uses 25,000 kWh per capita and year; Sweden 16,000, France 6,000, Italy 3,000.

Here in Hungary the figure is 2,300 kWh per person and year. Not surprisingly, developing countries emphasize expansion of electricity production as a central element of their economic development agendas. While nuclear power stations generating electricity have often been criticized as large scale and inhumane installations by modern ideologues, one should note that electricity is exceptionally convenient for small scale end-use, stimulating grass root activities. There is a lot of demand to satisfy: 8 million Swedes dispose of 33,000 MW generating capacity, of which 9,500 are nuclear, and use 16,000 kWh per capita and year, 100 million people in Bangladesh dispose of 1000 MW capacity and have a per capita consumption of 46 kilowatthours per year. If Norway has a per capita consumption which is 7 times higher than Italy's, the industrialized countries on the average have a per capita consumption which is 14 times higher than the developing countries' .

I think we can safely proceed on the assumption that demand for electricity will continue to rise both in industrialized and developing countries. I am not alone in this view. A number of serious organizations such as OECD, IIASA and the WEC have concluded that in the next 20 to 30 years we shall need more energy, especially electricity, than we now use. The report of the World Commission does not recognize that the considerable energy savings which have been achieved in the industrialized world in the last decades to a great extent are due to a change to electricity in end use. Electricity is so efficient in heating and in providing mechanical energy through motors that the overall efficiency - and economy - improves. This trend towards increased use of electricity will most.likely continue. The real question should then be: How can we meet those increasing demands for electricity in a manner which is sustainable and environmentally acceptable? Generation through nuclear power is one option, and I shall first discuss this source of electricity.

Nuclear power is a reality in our present world. It is at present used mainly to produce electricity, and this will remain the chief application. Currently, nuclear power produces 16% of all the world's electricity. It would take an additional coal production equivalent to the current US production, or an additional oil production equivalent to Saudi Arabia's production in 1982 to generate this amount of electricity using coal and oil respectively. These are the dimensions. In individual countries, the contribution of nuclear power to the electricity production varies. It is highest in France where it accounts for 70%. In Belgium, nuclear provides 66% of the electricity, in Sweden 50%, in Finland 37%, in the UK and the US 18%, in Japan 29%, in the Republic of Korea 53%, in the USSR about 11%. And here in Hungary 39%.

Alternatives to nuclear for generating electricity: Hydro, wind, solar

Which are the alternatives to nuclear in the generation of electricity? Let me begin by discussing the renewable sources like hydro, wind and solar, which are often said to be environmentally benign. Of these, only hydro now makes a significant contribution of 21070 to the world's electricity production. It is not, however, without environmental consequences. Big hydro projects have major local impacts and we have learnt through the years that they also entail some risk of major catastrophes. One dam accident in 1979 in Morvi in India caused an estimated 15,000 deaths. Here in Europe, the dam failure in Vaiont, Italy, in 1963, killed 3,000 people.

A large hydro potential still exists in developing countries and it should certainly be used whenever it is economical and practical. In many cases it is, however, far removed from consumption centres, as in Brazil, for instance. In most industrialized countries, little usable hydro potential remains to be tapped. And we know that environmental problems are often involved. The Danube, for instance, can undoubtedly provide more hydro power, but the environmental consequences of further exploitation are already the subject of much discussion.

Solar power is making a substantial contribution to heating in some countries. In isolated locations, and on a small scale, it is also contributing to electricity production, just as it does in satellites, watches and calculators, where the cost is not a big consideration. However, solar cells for large-scale economic electricity production are deemed to be several decades away.

Windmills certainly have a long tradition, and they may be economic for the small-scale user, but despite considerable experimentation and promotion, wind power has not become reliable and economic on a large scale and does not yield the quantities of electricity we need. In Denmark for example, a major wind power project is expected to add only 100 MW(e) in the next five years, while during 1985 alone 509 MW(e) capacity was added through new oil- and coalfired plants. I should add that both wind and solar power raise system problems, namely that they may not be productive at the time when the power is needed. They thus require systems for energy storage, for which we now have no economically viable technology.

It is conceivable that one day in the future we will be able to produce large quantities of electricity economically through large-scale solar cells and other energy sources, such as nuclear fusion. It is further within the realm of the possible that nuclear fission, oil and coal all will one day be phased out as sources of electricity generation. Indeed, most techniques are transient. For example, oil burning, which plays such a crucial role today, has been used on a large scale for only some 40 to 50 years, and we can now see the end of the oil period. However, new sources for large-scale electricity generation are not even around the corner, and we cannot plan the future of our societies on dreams. Whether we like it or not, we must recognize that today planners can count on only coal, oil, gas and nuclear - and on hydro in some countries - for any significant new contributions to the world's supply of electricity. Undoubtedly they all will be used. precautions we take.

Environmental and economic standpoints

From the environmental viewpoint, it does matter, however, what relative share we derive from each one of them and what precautions we take. Even with current low oil prices, a substantially expanded use of oil for electricity generation is likely to be rejected as too expensive in most cases. It is also a sad waste of this limited valuable resource to burn it for electricity production. Gas is considered to be a more limited resource than oil and it is likely to be used as a fuel on a large scale only for a relatively short period. Like oil, it is also potentially a much too valuable raw material for industry in many countries to be used indiscriminately for burning. By contrast, the only use you can make of uranium is as a fuel.

Biomass - in the past, mostly firewood and animal dung - has also been much in the headlines. It is, of course, very important in some developing countries where it is the only fuel for many. With growing population, the resulting increasing deforestation in many countries is now an extremely serious concern. Reforestation remains a high priority to help stem erosion and desertification and to yield some fuel. Energy forests would have the long-term advantage of not disturbing the CO2 balance, but I cannot see them as a rear source of energy in an industrial society. Hydro and gas are likely to be used for electricity production where they are available. Elsewhere, the two principal realistic options for future large-scale production of electricity in the world are coal and nuclear. Both will be used on an increasing scale, and neither is without environmental impact.

Nuclear has an economic advantage - though this is disputed by some. In most countries, the kilowatthour produced by nuclear plants is cheaper than that produced by coal. An exception is the electricity produced by power plants which are located near coal mines in the USA and Canada. In countries like France and Sweden, which respectively produce 70 and 500/0 of their electricity from nuclear sources, nuclear energy has helped to stabilize the electricity price at a low level, thereby facilitating industrial development. Sweden in 1986 had one of the lowest industrial electricity prices in Europe at 2.4 English pence/KWh. In France it was 3.3 pence.

The economics of coal and nuclear are certainly of great importance to industry and to the competitiveness of States, but to the man in the street, I believe that the choice between the two will be governed more by the perception of risk of accidents and of the environmental impact. We have seen public opinion react dramatically on this issue after the Three Mile Island accident and even more strongly, after the Chernobyl accident. Public opinion may change again. There is already evidence in some countries that it is returning to the levels of acceptance that existed before Chernobyl.

A better acceptance of nuclear power, in my assessment, requires that the public be better informed and that we experience a period of trouble-free nuclear operation. Let me expound a bit on nuclear safety. As a result of the high safety requirements for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, the safety record of the nuclear electric industry has, in fact, been exceptionally good. In April 1986 - before Chernobyl - the nuclear power industry could boast of nearly 4000 reactor years without a single death reported from radiation and without any significant radioactive releases into the environment. The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 resulted in a partial reactor core melt, but was without any measurable health impad inside or outside the plant. It was a financial disaster for the owner, but otherwise I do not see how it can be called catastrophic. 

Chernobyl and the environment

On the other hand, the accident at Chernobyl was of great dimension, and I shall discuss it in some detail, as it was the first case in which serious environmental damage was caused by a nuclear power plant. Three factors together caused the accident:

  • specific physical characteristics of the reactor;
  • a series of grave infractions against rules and procedures by the operating staff; and
  • the failure of the designers to anticipate such human errors.

The result was - as we all know - a serious release of radioactive fission products to the atmosphere. The consequences in the Soviet Union were severe. Two people died immediately in the accident and 29, mainly operating and firefighting staff, died later from radiation injuries. More than 200 persons were taken to hospitals with radiation syndrome but all have since been released. 135,000 people were evacuated from a zone within a 30 km radius from the plant. The zone between 10 and 30 km is now decontaminated and could probably be resettled. The significant release of radioactivity into the environment by the accident has led to various speculations about additional cancer cases that may occur due to the releases. There is reason to be cautious about such figures. It is a very complex subject, and I am not a specialist, but I am told by those who know better that for doses below some 50 rems we have no scientific evidence of actual cancer risks, neither from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor from registered occupational doses. It is simply assumed that the risk may exist. Whatever the calculations - 6,000-25,000 additional deaths have been mentioned by some competent experts, but it may also be zero - the number of additional cancer cases caused by Chernobyl will be very small when compared with the millions of cases which are predictable from other causes in the same population. Only an epidemiological study carried out over many years may tell us the real consequences. And such a study is underway. I should also note that while a foetus certainly may be injured by radiation - just as a human being is - there is no evidence from Hiroshima or elsewhere that radiation affecting a father or a mother may genetically cause damage to their children.

The character of the Chernobyl fallout was very different from that of the weapons tests in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as it occurred at lower altitudes and the effect was very much determined by local rainfalls. This resulted in some "hot spots", where special measures had to be taken, such as prohibition of open air grazing of cattle, control of milk and vegetables, and restrictions regarding the use of meat from deer, elk and reindeer in Scandinavia. Many of the measures ordered were prudent and helped to reduce the public's exposure to radiation, but it was striking how differently governments and authorities reacted in setting the levels at which foodstuffs were deemed unfit for human consuIJ;lption. If no government set imprudentlY tolerant levels - and this has not been contended by anybody - a number of governments must be concluded to have acted unnecessarily severely with unnecessary economic loss and anxieties as a result.

In the days following the accident, the so-called intervention levels for iodine-131 in milk was, for instance, 2000 Bequerellliter in Sweden, 1000 in Hungary, 185 in Austria and 20 in Land Hesse in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is understandable that the public, seeing these large differences, started to doubt the competence of their authorities. Anxieties were also caused unnecessarily. A striking example comes to my mind, of the picture of a farmer whose strawberry field was divided by a national border and who had to state that one part of the strawberry harvest was deemed perfectly fit for consumption, while the other was deemed contaminated and had to be destroyed. This kind of difference is certainly an example of poorly harmonized environmental risk management. The establishment of intervention levels must probably remain a national responsibility but they can and should be harmonized on a common scientific basis. To achieve this, governments must act through international organizations, such as WHO, FAO and the IAEA - and they do. I am told that FAO and WHO now have agreed on proposed intervention levels for foodstuffs in international transport and that they are · expected to be accepted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission in a meeting which is going on just now. (Editor's note: Since agreed upon). Let me continue with the environmental and health consequences of Chernobyl. We are now getting the results of carefully made estimates of the radiation received by the public during the first year after the accident. NEA/OECD published one set in December 1987. The highest average dose of radiation to individuals in a Western European country was reported for Austria, and was 65 mrem for that one year. This amount of additional radiation dose is less than the difference in the natural background radiation between Vienna and Northern Austria, where the prevalent granite foundation yields more natural radiation. I am not suggesting that this rather reassuring figure means that we can be relaxed about releases of this magnitude. We cannot, because we are committed to the principle that man-made radiation emissions should always be kept as low as reasonably attainable. However, anxiety is as misplaced as is complacency.

Chernobyl was a very grave accident. Still, it was an accident that with some costs in life and health could be brought under control. It was not the kind of catastrophe often described by opponents of nuclear power, in which huge tracts of land would remain uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Indeed at the local level, and with the exception so far of the immediate vicinity of the plant, the situation is now returning to normal. In the neighbouring West European countries which were subjected to fallout, the excitement was great, but the consequences were relatively easily managed - at a cost - even though they were handled very differently in different countries. Taken together, the results were tragic and serious but not extraordinary in comparison with some other industrial accidents. Bhopal in India resulted in about 2,500 deaths and 150,000 injured and it, too, had long-term health effects. I admit it is rather poor comfort to compare a disaster in one industry with disasters in other industries, but I think we must try to maintain a sense of reality about what the risks of our present industrial society are. Nuclear power has some unique features among industries, but the level of risks it poses to health and environment are not unique. Whether these risks are tolerable should be assessed in the same way for nuclear as for other industries, especially those producing electricity.

Before the Chernobyl accident, the major perceived risk with nuclear power was the disposal of high-level radioactive wastes, that is the highly radioactive spent fuel or the separated fission products from it. Public opinion in thi,s case contrasts starkly with that of all the nuclear engineers and scientists who consider that existing technology is adequate for the safe disposal of these wastes and that no additional breakthroughs are needed. It is true that a stringent safety analysis is difficult when we are talking' about a period involving thousands of years, but what is often not recognized is that the small quantities of waste from a nuclear power plant make it easier to arrange their safe disposal without any significant impact on the cost of the electricity generated. When we consider the acceptability of this waste, we must also keep in mind what its alternatives would be. Very few realize that the total amount of spent fuel from a nuclear power plant is smaller than the amount of poisonous heavy metals set free from burning coal of many types to produce the same amount of electric energy. And while the spent fuel is isolated from the biosphere, the wastes from coal-burning are just set free!

EPL Climate Article 4

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