Advancing Nuclear Innovation: Responding to Climate Change and Strengthening Global Security
This report is a culmination of meetings and effort from Partnership for Global Security and the Nuclear Energy Institute under the Global Nexus Initiative. Advanced nuclear reactors, the smaller, flexible, and innovative nuclear technologies of the future, are rising in importance as the global community grapples with the vital challenges of cutting carbon emissions, supporting the global demand for electric power, and ensuring the continued peaceful use of nuclear energy in the 21st century.
The Global Nexus Initiative is a leader in analyzing the intersection of nuclear power, climate change, and global security. It determined that advanced reactors offer sufficient potential value in providing zero-carbon energy and supporting global economic growth, and that further study was needed of the nuclear safeguards and security requirements for the three major types of advanced reactors: molten salt fuel, TRISO-based fuel, and fast neutron spectrum reactors.
Full Report (PDF).
Findings and Recommendations
Advanced reactors are an important component fo the global strategy to reduce carbon emissions to zero. The most recent report by the IPCC states that limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius will prevent the worst impacts of climate change but will require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented" action on decarbonization. Advanced Reactors promise: enhanced efficiency and safety, reduced construction time and costs, fuel cycles that can reduce environmental impacts, and a wider variety of sizes and outputs for different locations and applications. All of these attributes, plus the value of producing emission-free electricity in a carbon-constrained world, make advanced reactors attractive energy sources. However, in order to make a timely contribution to meet the energy and climate challenges that the world faces, advanced reactors must move to deployment in the 2025-2030 timeline.
There is high confidence that any of the advanced reactor concepts can be safeguarded to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. The question is how easily and at what cost. The current international safeguards system has been effectively and efficiently implemented for the global fleet of Light Water Reactors (LWRs). The IAEA will need to consider how to best accommodate the unique characteristics of advanced reactor technologies and designs. The reactor designers must, from the early concept stage, be focused on "safeguards by design," identifying reactor features that will facilitate effective international safeguards and ensure a high level of proliferation prevention and security comparable to LWRs. This will require the adaptation of the international safeguards and security systems for advanced reactors by the international community and the IAEA.
There are characteristics of advanced reactors that can support improved nuclear security and prevent unauthorized radioactive release, including below-ground placement, passive safety features, low operating pressures, and decreased external power dependence. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain may also assist with security and safeguards. There are questions regarding the implications of the remote location of these reactors (because they can support industrial as well as electric power operations). This includes how the siting may impact physical security and critical issues like timely response in the case of a security event.
The international community must ensure from an early point that any race for market share among key geopolitical competitors strengthens nuclear governance rather than weakens it. Advanced reactors must be thoroughly evaluated with respect to both safety and security, as part of an evolved nuclear governance structure. Traditionally, the dominant suppliers of nuclear technology have had a significant influence on these issues. It is not clear at this point which advanced reactors, or which countries, will lead the market competition.
Promoting Public Confidence
There must be political and public confidence in this new class of reactors if they are to effectively contribute to meeting the climate and security challenges the world faces in this century. Nations that are interested in the deployment of these reactors must commit, and be offered adequate international assistance, to increase their capability to safely, securely, and effectively operate them