Dr Christoph Frei, World Energy Council: “The energy sector has to re-evaluate itself and regain the public confidence to be granted its social licence to operate.”

Dr. Christoph Frei, Fifth Secretary General of the World Energy Council, says the need for effective global governance of the nuclear power industry has never been greater and that only when stronger governance is put in place will public trust be restored in this vital sector.

By K. Steiner-Dicks

I picked up on Dr Frei's recent statement, which led us to a very insightful conversation on the overall energy sector, but most importantly nuclear energy, and how governments, policy makers and industry must discuss in tandem how they will effectively meet the global energy challenges of today and as far into the future as 2050, when power demand will double today’s requirements. These and other issues will be discussed at the upcoming October World Energy Congress taking place in Daegu, Korea.

NEI: Dr Frei, you recently said that the need for effective global governance of the nuclear power industry has never been greater and that only when stronger governance is put in place will public trust be restored in this vital sector. Do you want to elaborate on that?

CF: At this point in time, we are in a post-Fukushima and a post-BP spill public debate. In addition to these pressures, the global energy industry as a whole is managing a transition. The energy industry has been placed with huge expectations to lower not only CO2 emissions, but to simultaneously lower costs and increase security. Plus, there are also more than a billion people that still do not have access to electricity. It’s what we call the trilemma.
The energy sector has to re-evaluate itself and regain the public confidence to be granted its social licence to operate.

NEI: While in many regards this is true about a waning public trust over nuclear emergency management, many in the industry, especially those in established markets, such as France, the UK and the US, would argue that the industry does have an excellent safety record and effective governance. I believe what the industry has come to realise is that there are underlying issues at play that could make a nuclear disaster worse than necessary—these could be as simple as business culture. Additional post-accident risks could be decreased substantially by having pre-prepared and coordinated emergency global supply chains, skilled staff on site at all times, a global standard of transparent lines of communication and guidelines for nuclear plant staff in the event of an accident, etc.

With this in mind, you mention that the nuclear industry and the global energy sector as a whole is managing a tremendous transition with growing challenges and costs all amongst a 2020 deadline for most countries to get their CO2 levels down. That said, the nuclear industry has a unique skill set requirement and these respective resources could be overstretched as new plants get upgraded and built across the world.

How do you envisage with all these additional factors that the nuclear industry as a global energy segment can unilaterally reduce risks and appease the public over safety?

CF: On the one hand you have certain markets, such as the US, that have collaborated with clubs of nuclear power companies to form joint insurance. You only have the right to draw down on that insurance if you are viewed by your peers that you fulfil all safety requirements, which are the reinforcement of benchmarks across the sector. This is an approach that also exists in other parts of the world.

But there are still regional interpretations that can come into play. Every nation feels that their nuclear energy policy is part of their sovereignty. It has come to a point that all nations must accept that they must lose a bit of their sovereignty to enable the enforcement of international safety and operation standards.

This is where the World Energy Council must work closely to help make the decision making truly international through government training. It must work to help the industry overcome conflicts of interest of national sovereignty and global governance enforcement. This is a very delicate issue, but one that should be approached proactively by the nuclear energy industry to gain back public trust and gain the full social licence to operate to see the market grow.

Our World Energy Congress in October will look at all these issues. We will be welcoming leaders from the nuclear energy industry and governance organisations for dialogues with energy businesses and ministers. The Congress will provide a powerful platform for these discussions to crystallise.

NEI: You mention in a recent statement that the nuclear energy sector is a 'vital' one. Could you elaborate on that point?

CF: The energy trilemma is the challenge of the global energy demand, which is set to double by today’s standards by 2050. At the same time we need to halve the global greenhouse emission levels.

The World Energy Council wants to help those countries that do not have access to clean sustainable energy and especially those 1.3 billion people that do not have any access to electricity.

If as a country you do not align your competitive strategy with your energy policy strategy you will fail your own economic future. Not all countries will have the same conclusion when it comes to their energy strategy for many reasons. Saying that, countries when dealing with this energy trilemma, must keep all options open at the first look so that their energy base is affordable with a high level of energy security for the people in their country.

Nuclear is not an option for all countries for democratic reasons, security reasons, such as nuclear proliferation issues, where it would be too risky to build a nuclear plant. Every energy policy should therefore be developed so that it can best achieve a competitive economic strategy and nuclear should be considered in these polices.

NEI: How do you see nuclear energy fitting into the global energy mix now that we have some established markets phasing out nuclear power?

CF: Before Fukushima we were saying that there was a nuclear renaissance and that the sector was growing. We saw a shift in the pattern of growth after the Fukushima event that went from OECD to non-OECD countries.

Post-Fukushima, the enthusiasm over nuclear energy has slowed down because safety costs have been driven up, and then there are other factors that have come into play, such as the availability of inexpensive natural gas, especially in the US. But, for example, we cannot foresee a China without nuclear energy.

[Editor’s note: the emerging non-OECD countries (mainly China and India) are expected to dominate future growth. Since these countries need to utilise all options to meet their rapidly growing electricity demand and secure certain levels of economic growth, it would be potentially very costly for them to rule out the option to increase their use of nuclear power. Only Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and Italy have retracted their nuclear power programmes. The developing nations (especially China, Russia, and India) are continuing their planned projects.]

Concluding thoughts

Dr. Frei concludes our conversation with an analogy. He compares the nuclear industry to a pendulum that is still swinging, albeit slower than a couple of years ago. This pendulum is waiting on the global decision makers to get it swinging to a level it should be-- not just for the people that depend on this industry for a living, but the millions of people and businesses in constant need of clean, safe and stable electricity.

And lastly, I throw him one of those hard questions, but he admits it is a very important one to attempt to answer. ‘What would make him feel that the World Energy Council really achieved something at this year’s Congress?’

“The World Energy Council’s mission is to inspire country representatives, including energy policy makers, utilities, energy sector manufacturers and construction companies, to come together to form an elite focus on all the different issues within the energy trilemma,” he says.

“We want them to address the climate debate; think about how solutions can be made to the rising number of coal plants being built in India and China. We want people to start thinking and discussing about solving the CO2 problem from countries, such as India and China and others, from either the quality side or the innovation side or from both. If we do not have a global price on CO2 with the energy community at 0 per cent, then that is what we run as the biggest risk. If there were greater signs of focus and clarity on how the energy community was going to start making new energy policies and technology solutions to the trilemma as a result of the discussions that took place at this year’s Congress, then I think that would be amazing.”

• The 22nd World Energy Congress will take place in Daegu, Korea from the 13th to the 17th October 2013. Further details about the programme and registration process will be posted on the official website as they become available: Official Daegu 2013 website: http://www.daegu2013.kr

• Listen to learn more about what needs to be addressed in regards to the World Energy Trilemma in this World Energy Council report video: http://youtu.be/6t_zK9_rLkI