A 5G Strategy for Next-Generation Nuclear Energy

In March, the White House released a national strategy to secure fifth generation wireless technology, noting that it is essential to future security and prosperity. One of its four key pillars was “promoting responsible global development of 5G infrastructure” based on a set of guidelines developed multilaterally in Prague in 2019. This approach should be replicated in guiding the future of next-generation nuclear technologies.

The Prague standards were driven by concerns about China’s major technology supplier, Huawei Technologies, the world’s leading telecom provider, and its alarming relationship with Chinese government institutions.

There should be healthy concern about authoritarian government-provided high technology because in the current geopolitical environment it rarely is provided without strings attached or exploitable vulnerabilities. For example, a 2017 intelligence law asserts that Chinese organizations and citizens “shall” cooperate with national intelligence authorities.

Interestingly, the U.S. government has determined that it is necessary to work with like-minded countries to lead the “responsible” international deployment of 5G technology. This is a break with the withdrawal doctrine that has become attached to recent U.S. foreign policy.

One form that this engagement has taken is a bilateral U.S.-Poland agreement on 5G cooperation based on the Prague guidelines. The plan is to expand these agreements to other nations, particularly in Europe, where Huawei technology is under consideration.

There are several interesting aspects of this telecom diplomatic strategy that are applicable to the global competition over the deployment of next-generation nuclear energy technologies.

It is already well established that Russia and China are going to be significant competitors in the next-generation technology market. The U.S. has been active in discouraging countries from making nuclear deals with both nations by working to build “coalitions of caution.” This is very consistent with its 5G strategy.

Also, the State Department has developed new approaches to civil nuclear cooperation that use non-binding Nuclear Cooperation Memoranda of Understanding (NCMOU). These agreements have been signed with Romania and Poland. They are being used to compete with the multiple nuclear MOUs signed with Russia and China around the world and are a tool for strengthening U.S. bilateral ties with key nations. Ultimately they may lead to the negotiation of formal bilateral agreements for nuclear cooperation. This approach also is similar to the 5G strategy.

But unlike its 5G strategy, the U.S. has not rallied its major allies in the civil nuclear space in a similar manner to the Prague approach. That method brought together 32 countries and resulted in a series of clear proposals for the future on policy, technology, the economy, and security.

A similar set of non-binding guidelines and principles for next-gen nuclear could and should be developed among “like-minded” nations. This could result in an evolved competitive model that provides an effective alternative to the state-backed packages of Russia and China, which offer project financing, operation, and waste management solutions. The strings attached to these sweetheart deals can be very toxic and the international community could decide which model provides the greatest long-term benefit and security.

A Prague approach for next-gen nuclear would need to move beyond OECD supplier nations to include the developing economy countries that are the likely markets for smaller reactors. Those nations mostly have limited experience in nuclear operation and oversight. This will require that exporting nations and industries offer deeper support for the development of effective hard and soft nuclear infrastructure. These efforts can be outlined in a new set of Prague-type principles and designed to be synergistic with the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

The emphasis placed on ensuring openness, transparency, and good governance in the deployment of 5G technologies is warranted because 5G will impact virtually every sector the global economy and the lives of every individual. But those same core principles also are applicable to the expansion of nuclear power. 

Global security and prosperity will be strengthened by taking a Prague approach to building a responsible strategic framework for the next generation of nuclear energy. Avoiding it could strengthen the marketability of authoritarian government next-gen reactors and weaken the governance structure that is necessary for them.

Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security