The former secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency says the world should not give up on nuclear energy.
Nuclear still 'has role to play'
As the world remembers the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago tomorrow, it is wrestling with a whole new round of nuclear safety concerns prompted by the crisis in Japan, where radiation is still leaking from an atomic plant damaged by last month's earthquake and tsunami.
Last week, Dr Mohammed el Baradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, argued passionately for the world not to give up on peaceful nuclear power, saying it was still needed to help free more than 1.6 billion people from energy poverty.
"I have been observing the Japanese crisis, which has awakened dreadful memories of Chernobyl 25 years ago," he said in a keynote address to the Dubai Global Energy Forum. "But nuclear energy still has an important role to play."
The fundamental reasons behind the resurgence of interest in nuclear energy during the past decade had not been changed by the accident at Japan's Fukushima power plants, Dr el Baradei said. Those included strong worldwide growth in electricity demand, regional energy security concerns that were being magnified by volatile oil and gas prices and environmental problems linked with rising carbon dioxide emissions.
"Nuclear plants have become more efficient and reliable to run and emit almost no greenhouse gases," Dr el Baradei said.
"Scores of countries want to be added to the 30 countries using nuclear energy."
The accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima - the two most serious nuclear incidents excluding acts of war - were fundamentally different, Dr el Baradei argued.
The 1986 explosion of a reactor core at Chernobyl, Ukraine, "was caused by significant design deficiencies combined with gross human error". By contrast, "Fukushima was the consequence of a calamitous natural disaster", said Dr el Baradei.
"It is not clear if the people evacuated will ever be able to go back home, but at least they were evacuated in time."
At Chernobyl, 47 workers died from acute radiation syndrome and thousands more were affected by radiation-induced cancer.
To address the legitimate concerns arising from the Japanese disaster, however, the nuclear industry must undertake a comprehensive safety review of all military and civilian reactors currently in service worldwide, Dr el Baradei said. Ageing reactors should be retired and new reactors designed to withstand "the seemingly impossible".
In the wake of Fukushima, public confidence in nuclear power would be seriously undermined, he predicted. "But I am confident it can be re-established in due course.
"For that to happen there will need to be another qualitative leap forward in nuclear safety," he said. "Chernobyl and Fukushima must be seen to be aberrations."
Global safety regimes for civilian nuclear power must be made more comprehensive and robust, and safeguards against nuclear arms proliferation must be universal and non-negotiable, said Dr el Baradei.
"If we can manage to do this, nuclear power will have a role to play in energy production for many generations to come."