Building a Better Nuclear Security Coalition Post-COVID19

The devastating blow from the novel coronavirus has upended many assumptions about global safety, security and preparedness. That disruption opens the opportunity for rethinking how the international community should plan for the mounting transnational challenges of the future, including ensuring global nuclear security.

A new report from the U.S. energy department is remarkably frank in its assessment that “America is losing its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy and technology to state-owned enterprises.” The main challenges are coming from Russia and China, with Russia astonishingly having morphed from Chernobyl to the global nuclear contractor of choice in a few decades.  

The assessment of the Nuclear Fuels Working Group (NFWG) has several key recommendations. But two that stand out are the need to take a “whole-of-government” approach to supporting civil nuclear exports and strengthening U.S. leadership on next-gen nuclear technologies. These issues are intimately related, because it is unlikely that the U.S. can lead on next-gen reactors without a modernization of its past export approaches. 

The offerings of the state-financed nuclear enterprises of other nations are very enticing, particularly to newcomer nuclear nations, because they provide a one-stop shop for the financing, construction, operation, and waste solutions that are at the heart of nuclear power’s enduring challenges.

Equally important, and perhaps surprisingly, the DoE strategy document makes clear its view that the future of nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation depends on, “a robust civil nuclear energy industry and technology leadership position” for the United States. In fact, the document asserts that the U.S. will “move into markets” now dominated by Russia and China and bring with it “strong non-proliferation standards.” 

This is a dramatic shift in emphasis on the nuclear energy export issue. While civil nuclear power and non-proliferation always have been inextricably linked, past generations of nuclear power export have relegated nuclear security issues to a separate, and some might suggest, second tier policy concern. This has raised hackles with nuclear non-proliferation professionals and helped to stoke animosity between that community and the nuclear industry.

Now the opportunity is being offered to bridge that nuclear security-commerce gap. But it is unclear if past combatants are willing to accept the offer to work together. The Global Nexus Initiative (GNI) pioneered this nuclear power-global security bridge building beginning five years ago. Its record of success underscores that there are significant areas of common concern and the need for cooperation between the nuclear industry and nuclear security communities. But there is a residual reluctance to embrace the value, and necessity, of this collaboration.

The problem with rejecting the opportunity to collectively build a strong nuclear security and non-proliferation system for next-gen reactors is that it is constructed on the outdated premise that the U.S. controls future nuclear developments. It does not, as the NFWG and reams of additional evidence have made clear.

The current gigawatt-sized nuclear market is largely Russia’s. The next-gen market could be theirs and China’s if there is not a strong U.S. counterweight. If the authoritarian governments corner this market, then the influence of the American and allied nation nuclear security policy community will be significantly diminished. And the balance of power inside international institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could shift toward undemocratic nations for the long-term.

So, in thinking about how the world is really evolving, rather than holding-on to how it once was organized, nuclear stakeholders need to come to grips with what really needs to be achieved over the long term and how that can best be done.

It is highly unlikely that the good governance nuclear policy community is going to stop Russia or China from developing and deploying small reactors, including providing them to small electrical grid nations in dangerous neighborhoods, without a competing product, effective marketing, and stronger security standards from America and its allies. You cannot fight something with nothing and expect to win.

Also, against the backdrop of the most polarized U.S. political environment in memory, next-gen reactors have generated bipartisan support. So, it is going to be difficult to hammer a wedge between Democrats and Republicans on the issue to gain political leverage.

Further, the need for carbon-free energy is not going to diminish with time and next-gen technologies can make contributions to that goal, particularly in smaller economy nations or if deployed at large scale. The impact of climate change on agriculture and water availability is going to create new international conflicts and the Department of Defense (DoD) is looking to small reactors to power their future operations, creating additional nuclear policy complexities.

This is not the Cold War landscape or the post-9/11 environment. It is a new World in Disarray, and COVID-19 has proven that we are largely unprepared for it. While some things like novel coronaviruses can unexpectedly emerge, the future trajectory of nuclear energy is very clear. It includes small reactors, novel fuel cycles, and non-traditional deployment schemes for which current international safeguards and security guidelines are not well suited.

So, we can be caught unprepared for what we know is coming by doubling down on old battle lines or we can seize the opportunity to work together. The best bet is to build a new, multi-disciplinary, collaborative nuclear security coalition that is focused on creating the secure nuclear future that will address the real needs created by a challenging and increasingly unfriendly international environment. 

Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security