By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The world needs a 20-fold expansion in nuclear energy in order to prevent dangerous climate change, the head of a leading industry body has said.
The century's end could see 20 times more reactors than currently
John Ritch, director-general of the World Nuclear Association, made his comments at a conference in Sydney.
He said nuclear power was the only way to fuel fast-developing nations without big rises in greenhouse gases, and that nuclear weapons is an unrelated issue.
His comments have been condemned by environmental groups.
There are about 440 reactors in the world producing electricity, and Mr Ritch forecast a major expansion ahead, with almost 30 new plants currently under construction.
"We will be moving... to a world in the next 25 years in which we have more than 1,000 reactors, and by mid-century I would expect we would have 2,000 to 3,000 reactors in the world," he said, concluding that by the end of the century, a 20-fold increase on today's numbers would be feasible and desirable.
'Clean and green'
If scientific projections of human-induced climate change are true, Mr Ritch continued, the effect would be "the death of not just millions, but billions of people, and the destruction of much of civilisation on all continents."
Although nuclear fission does produce greenhouse gases, notably during fuel production, emissions are currently a lot less that those from burning fossil fuels, which has led in recent years to the nuclear industry positioning itself as "clean and green".
Nuclear power has become a key platform of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, a six-nation pact widely seen as a rival to the Kyoto Protocol which seeks to curb greenhouse gas emissions through technology alone.
This year has seen the emergence of two new deals between members of the pact: Australia has agreed to supply uranium to China, while moves to share civilian nuclear technologies with India are proceeding through the US Congress.
Concerns over North Korea's apparent development of nuclear weapons and Iran's enrichment programme should not, Mr Ritch suggested, deter further development of civilian reactors.
"The nuclear proliferation danger comes not from the existence of nuclear facilities, but from the intentions of those who possess them," he said.
"The intent of an Iran or a North Korea is a geopolitical variable virtually independent of whether countries like Brazil, Canada, South Africa, or Australia develop additional nuclear facilities."
Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth UK was scathing on this point.
"It is absolute rubbish," he told the BBC News website.
"In most countries which have embraced civilian nuclear power, the next step has been towards weapons.
"Finland and South Korea might be exceptions; but in Britain for example we built the Magnox reactors to equip nuclear-armed bombers and submarines, and to say there's no reason to be concerned about the spread of civilian nuclear power is complacent to the point of being foolhardy."
Mr Juniper pointed to recent research showing that Britain and other countries could make swingeing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from combinations of energy efficiency, better public transport, carbon capture and storage, and renewable resources without the need for nuclear reactors.
The well-documented concern that oil may be running out has given rise to a parallel debate over uranium; and Mr Ritch's comments beg the question of whether there is enough available to supply anything like the expansion he is advocating.
"It's absolutely out of the question," was the response of David Fleming, an independent energy analyst based in the UK.
Green groups urge small-scale renewables rather than nuclear
"He obviously hasn't got a clue about the detail of the nuclear cycle. It's all very well to stand back and make these wild statements, but there's a big difference between wishes and reality."
Mr Fleming's research suggests that as demand rises, mining companies will turn to poorer-grade ores. At some point, more energy will have to be put in to process the ore than the reactors will generate.
But Robert Vance of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency was more positive.
Based on two recent reports issued by the Agency, he said: "If we look at the amount of what are called 'conventional resources' - that's uranium known to be in the ground which is well described - there would be enough at current rates of use to last for 85 years."
A 20-fold increase would present challenges, he suggested; but reprocessing used fuel, and developing new reactors based on fast-breeder cycles that create new fuel as they burn, could significantly extend the resources available.
"If you just talk about what's in the ground and recycling, there's enough to last for 2,500 years [at current rates of use]," he said.