The head of the U.N.'s Atomic Energy Agency (search) on Monday trumpeted the benefits of nuclear power as consumers demand more energy and new environmental protection rules risk raising the costs of fossil fuels.

Mohamed ElBaradei (search), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search), focused on the prospects of nuclear power at the start of a two-day conference bringing together industry ministers and high-level government officials from more than 60 countries.

"It is my hope that during this conference we can consider how each of these factors can be addressed to ensure that nuclear energy remains a viable source of safe, secure and environmentally benign energy," ElBaradei said in an opening speech.

The two-day meeting, billed as the first of its kind in decades, comes as high oil prices and efforts to reduce global warming have made nuclear power development more attractive.

Meanwhile, the United States has expressed concerns that Iran is allegedly using its planned nuclear power program to mask its desire to develop nuclear weaponry.

The conference, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UAEA, was to plot out energy needs and examine threats to the global environment in the future.

"This meeting is all about energy policy and the use of nuclear power in the 21st century," said Karen Daifuku, a spokeswoman for the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency. She said the ministerial-level conference will be the first of its kind on the future of nuclear energy since the 1950s.

About half of the participating countries already use nuclear energy, while the others are considering development or seeking to keep an eye on the industry's prospects, she said.

Host France, a co-sponsor with the two international agencies, generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, more than any other country.

The United States, the world's top nuclear energy producer, is among nations represented at the conference. Also present are countries like Pakistan with a nuclear weapons capacity, and Iran.

Thorny topics on the agenda include discussions about security measures to prevent the theft or disappearance of fissile material used in nuclear power plants and efforts to crack down on the proliferation of nuclear weapons.