Bridging the Gap on Climate, Nuclear and Security Policy

As the news of climate change’s global impact grows grimmer, the unwillingness of governments and some environmental advocates to embrace a full solution set for the problem grows increasingly inexcusable. It’s time to bridge the climate-nuclear power-global security gap.

A new analysis signed by 11,258 scientists from 153 nations warned that humanity is now facing a “climate emergency” resulting from “insufficient progress” in reducing greenhouse gasses. This was preceded by another alarming assessment that triples the estimate of global vulnerability to increases in sea level. This as California is yet again burning intensely.

Recent academic studies, particularly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have illustrated the value of nuclear power in meeting deep decarbonization objectives even as renewable energy will continue to thrive. Some well-known U.S. environmental and energy NGOs have come to accept the zero carbon value of existing nuclear power plants as they see global carbon emissions continue to rise and are facing the reality that while renewable energy will continue to grow, so will the global population and the demand for clean energy.

National governments and international organizations also are recognizing the climate value of nuclear power. A dozen countries have come together under the Clean Energy Ministerial to create the NICE Future initiative, that is designed to highlight the contribution of nuclear energy to global clean energy supply. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) convened an International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power that examined in depth the role of nuclear power in reducing global greenhouse gasses. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has made the case that nuclear power is, and can continue to make, a significant contribution to a zero carbon world. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted the value of nuclear power in reducing carbon while also raising concerns about its future viability.

Achieving a zero-carbon objective by mid-century or even the end of the century will be difficult and almost certainly will require a mix of technologies. Taking nuclear power offline prematurely will increase global emissions as it is the second largest zero-carbon energy source after hydropower and now accounts for more than half of America’s carbon free electricity, the world’s second largest emitter.

In advanced economies, existing large-scale nuclear reactors currently average 35 years old. These reactors were originally designed for a 40-year life. If life extensions are granted by regulators, some of these reactors could approach 60-80 years of operation by mid-century. Without life extensions, and replacement, their retirement could add an additional 4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions and require an additional $1.6 trillion investment to support a clean energy transition.

If renewables expand to roughly 40% of generation, as one MIT report predicted, they may then face cost increases, making the next generation nuclear power, small modular and advanced reactors (SM&AR), a viable complementary zero-carbon option. In theory, these reactors can replace the existing fleet as it retires, but the volume of these reactors would need to be significant as their power output is considerably lower. They also have the potential to address the cost, safety, waste, and security concerns that plague the existing nuclear fleet.

However, before these reactors can advance to the deployment stage, there are financial, regulatory, demonstration, and security issues that need to be addressed.

Because of the nascent nature of SM&AR development, the nuclear security “gap” policy issues have received little study. These include: analyses of the safeguards, security and geopolitical implications and requirements of SM&ARs; assessing the impacts and mitigation of emerging disruptive technologies on these reactors; and determining how to effectively and productively engage with Russia and China to preserve high global nuclear governance standards as these reactors enter deployment.

Without addressing these key issues in a timely fashion, it could inhibit the development and deployment of these technologies. And, it could provide an advantage for developers and exporter nations that do not have much invested in high levels of global nuclear governance.

Those that really want to achieve a zero-carbon world increasingly understand that there is no one silver bullet. Preserving existing nuclear capacity and paving the pathway for the next generation of reactors will create a more effective and flexible solution set. Bridging the climate-nuclear-security gap is a necessary step forward.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security