Advancing Nuclear Innovation: Responding to Climate and Security Challenges

The Global Nexus Initiative (GNI) published an important and groundbreaking new analysis of the implications of advanced nuclear reactor technologies for responding to climate change and strengthening global security. Its findings are significant for U.S. and international policy makers because as the Washington Post pointed out on the day of the report’s release, “nuclear remains a critical source of low-carbon emissions baseload electric power.” Previously, the International Energy Agency noted that it will be very difficult to meet the Paris agreement’s carbon dioxide reduction goals without expanding nuclear power.

The GNI report assessed advanced nuclear power from four perspectives: climate, non-proliferation, security, and geopolitics; and it proposed concrete, actionable recommendations. There were five primary results.

Advanced reactors are an important component of the global strategy to reduce carbon emissions to zero. Carbon emissions have climbed to their highest level ever based on NASA’s assessment and are relentlessly rising. The space agency notes that fossil fuel burning at a business-as-usual rate will drive CO2 levels to an extreme level. In order for advanced reactors to make a timely contribution to meet global energy and climate goals, they must be ready for deployment in the 2025-30 timeframe when older larger reactors likely will enter an accelerated decommissioning phase. The Congress is pushing these advanced technologies forward in rare bipartisan legislation.

Vital to the deployment of any civil nuclear technology is the prevention of nuclear proliferation. GNI determined that it had “high confidence” that any of the advanced reactor concepts can be effectively safeguarded to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. But those safeguards measures will very likely be different from those applied to light-water reactors (LWRs). To ensure effective proliferation prevention, the safeguards must be designed into the reactor. This will avoid the difficult process of retrofitting a safeguards system to a new technology. However, in order to achieve “safeguards by design” the reactor development community and the experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will need to begin substantive discussions quickly and engage often.

Also critical for advanced reactors is their ability to operate securely and prevent insider tampering and terrorist exploitation. A challenge for advanced reactors will be ensuring nuclear security if they are deployed in remote locations. Because of their smaller size, decreased power output, and industrial process applicability, these reactors may be used in developing economy countries and for processes including water desalination. Many of these nations are located in unstable regions, face terrorist threats, and are ranked low on the scale of effective governance.

As a result, fortifying global nuclear governance is a key recommendation from GNI. Advanced reactors present some unique new challenges and the international community needs to ensure that the nuclear governance system is strengthened to support these technologies. A “race to the bottom” on nuclear governance must be avoided. It cannot be a consequence of the conflict over market share among exporting nations. The effectiveness of the governance regime will have a direct impact on public confidence in these new reactors. A key part of that process must be comprehensively assisting nations interested in the new reactors so that they are prepared for their deployment and operation. This will require that exporting nations work with the IAEA and supplement their current programs.

The future of nuclear governance for advanced reactors will be directly impacted by the nations that are exporting these technologies. The geopolitics of nuclear export is a rising issue as the U.S., Russia, and China compete more intensively on the global stage. There are significant regulatory, safeguards and security developments that will be required for advanced reactors. Historically, the nations that dominate the export market have an outsized influence on these issues; in the past that had been the U.S. and its allies. Now, Russia is dominating LWR exports and China is looking to close that gap. The fight for the advanced reactor market is just beginning and which countries take the lead in that battle will have a direct influence on global security.

The world is at a unique point and facing numerous new challenges. A business-as-usual approach in any area of global importance is inadequate. Addressing the real-world challenges of this century requires creativity and measured risk taking, not a retreat to traditional comfort zones. A key part of this new environment is technological competition, including on the development and deployment of clean and distributed energy systems. This includes safe, secure, and proliferation resistant advanced nuclear reactors. The GNI analysis offers the first publicly available, comprehensive assessment of the safeguards, security, and geopolitical implications of these new reactors.

Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security