This year will feature two bookend events that have the potential to significantly reshape how and whether the global community effectively attacks the entwined nuclear energy and climate change challenges. Next week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will hold an International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS) in Vienna. In November the 26th meeting of the United Nation’s climate talks will convene in Glasgow, Scotland.
The ICONS event is the third of its kind and it has gotten less, not more, bold as it has matured. The focus is on “Sustaining and Strengthening Efforts” an anodyne objective that features a host of retread issues from the four head-of-state summits during the Obama era. It’s not that the agenda is unimportant, it is an admirable collection of technocratic expertise and best practices with a strong focus on information exchange and international cooperation.
There also will be discussions of building a stronger nuclear security legal framework, but that is a secondary issue fraught with political controversy, and therefore likely to remain in limbo. Unlike nuclear safety, there is no international convention on nuclear security with binding, common requirements for signatory nations. Instead, the IAEA offers detailed nuclear security recommendations and an opaque regulatory review process that nuclear-operating nations are free to implement or reject. That does not offer adequate assurances to the global community in a rapidly evolving threat environment.
The real problem with the ICONS program is what’s missing. There’s no focus on the future of nuclear technology and the management of the challenges that it poses for global security and terrorism prevention. The next generation of nuclear power is going to be smaller, dispersed, and operate with novel fuel cycles. It most likely will be deployed in nations new to nuclear operations. The pattern of population growth, energy demand, and natural resource scarcity driven by climate change that make these new reactors attractive is primarily impacting developing economy nations in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. These can be dangerous neighborhoods.
The combination of nuclear operating inexperience and looming terrorism will place new burdens on the IAEA, as well as the nations and companies supplying these technologies, to ensure adequate safeguarding and security of the reactors. This is a set of issues the ICONS experts should be focused on because it’s barreling down on them over the next decade.
If this was the IAEA’s focus, it would be easier for British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to open the door at the Glasgow U.N. climate framework’s Conference of the Parties (COP) to reframing the options for realistically responding to climate change, including the role of nuclear power. The Glasgow meeting is significant because it marks five years since the international climate agreement was completed in Paris in 2015. Since then, the globe has just grown hotter, along with the rhetoric about the need to address the climate crisis. The problem is that while the talk is hot, the action is not.
A perfect example is Japan. The 2011 accident at Fukushima traumatized the nation and led to a shut down of its nuclear plants, which once provided roughly a third of its electricity. While it has made a serious commitment to renewable energy, it is not enough for a major industrial power. As a result Japan now plans to build 22 new coal plants to drive its economy. A major competitor of Japan, China, continues to add coal capacity at a record pace. The major European industrial power, Germany, is ending its nuclear energy operations, dramatically ramping up renewables, but still won't meet its near-term carbon reduction objectives because of a continuing dependence on fossil fuels.
The U.K. by contrast has made a national decision that nuclear power is a key part of its climate change response. Johnson called for a “nuclear renaissance” soon after taking office. But the pathway is financially challenging, and it will potentially boost China’s nuclear export ability by offering a test bed for its technology. This will complicate already stressful geopolitical tensions posed by Russia’s increasing dominance of nuclear exports.
But if Johnson and allies, including the U.S., can firmly establish at the next COP that nuclear power is an essential contributor to effectively curbing atmospheric carbon, that could spur a renaissance in strengthening the safety, security and non-proliferation regime governing nuclear technology. That in turn, could open the door to a reevaluation by the global financial community and its international institutions that could alter the financing headwinds the nuclear industry and its innovators now confront.
The Prime Minister has stated that "urgent action" on climate change is required now. The opportunity in Glasgow to fundamentally alter the climate response equation so that it is much more effective is sitting in front of him waiting for his expeditious action.
Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security