Building the Support System for Next-Gen Nuclear

Last month’s COP 26 international climate change meeting provided an unexpected boost to the value of nuclear power as a clean energy source. But, if the next generation of the technology is to actually contribute to the global quest for zero-carbon energy, there is a lot more that needs to be done, and quickly.

There currently exists primarily a technology development and demonstration program for these new, smaller reactors. But the necessary support system for the technology is lagging.

The top priorities are: security policy development; a fully financed nuclear innovation ecosystem; streamlined licensing; and export market development.

The inability to strengthen these four pillars in synch with the technology development process could sink American and allied nations hopes for their deep involvement in the next-generation of nuclear energy. That would complicate international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. And it could open the door to unwelcome authoritarian nation control of the global deployment of these technologies.

Security policy is important because these new technologies have novel features that raise new concerns and challenges. There are four key issues – the potential expansion of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, updating safeguards to prevent weapons proliferation, adapting security approaches to prevent nuclear terrorism, and ensuring that newly-developed international standards are high.

A core concern is that nations deploying the reactors will use that decision to justify building uranium enrichment facilities to produce fresh fuel and reprocessing plants to manage the spent fuel. Both processes increase nuclear weapons proliferation potential.

While these are legitimate concerns there are financial and technical limitations to what new nuclear nations can afford and operate. And the nations that could sell them these enrichment and reprocessing technologies have an informal agreement to significantly limit transfers. Also, some new, advanced reactor designs reduce the amount of fuel needed and waste produced.

The safeguards and security issues need attention. There are significant challenges posed by some of the new nuclear technologies that will require innovative policy. Efforts are underway to assess and address these concerns and there is no reason to think that they can’t be effectively addressed. But this process needs to move much faster.

The financing issue is complicated because it requires meshing both government and private sector investment to bring these technologies to fruition.

While the U.S. and other governments are putting significant funding into the technology development and demonstration process, there is not complete agreement on how to finance the entirety of the next-gen nuclear innovation ecosystem.

One example is the fight in the U.S. over the Versatile Test Reactor. In the western world there is a need for expanded testing capability for the next-gen nuclear components. The VTR is proposed by the administration as a means of expanding and modernizing this capability. However, the funding was zeroed-out by the House of Representatives without explanation.

VTR is a symbol of resolve to aggressively compete in the new nuclear market as much as it a technical facility. Abandoning its function will send the wrong signal to allies and adversaries. If the Congress can’t see the big picture the administration should get creative in finding creative work arounds.

The other financial challenges include enticing the private sector to invest more in these new technologies and providing funding to prepare new nuclear nations for effective, safe, and secure reactor deployment and operation.

It is now very clear that the next generation of nuclear power is not going to be a purely commercial or private sector process. It will require government funds and financial guarantees. These are common in support of new clean energy technologies and should be extended to next-gen nuclear.

One way to expand support for new nuclear nations and promote its technology, is to direct a portion of the U.S.-pledged $11 billion for the Green Climate Fund to better prepare developing economy nations desiring small reactors. That fund supports developing nations impacted by climate change. Since nuclear energy has risen on the list of zero-carbon technologies, it is completely consistent with the fund’s goal. This approach also would counterbalance the financial enticements provided by Russia and China to developing nations.

The licensing issues are complex and impact the reality and perception of safety. So, cutting corners is a non-starter. But the current process is clearly cumbersome and there are a number of new ideas that have been put forward by experts. There also is a groundswell of support for licensing across national borders that could streamline global regulatory requirements. There is some collaboration among OECD nation regulators in this direction, but that engagement needs to be extended to developing nations that lack adequate regulatory infrastructure for new reactors.

The licensing and financing issues are central to cultivating the global market. Russia and China have a significant head start in this race and that has important geopolitical implications.

Through Belt and Road, China has created a durable conveyor for its industrial goods and services in many developing nations. To date its energy exports and financing have focused on coal and hydro power. But that could easily be expanded to include its indigenously developed nuclear technologies.

Russia already dominates the global large nuclear reactor market and fuel services. It is the only country that has deployed a small modular reactor. And it has nuclear agreements and ties with dozens of nations around the world. It is well positioned to extend this grip into the small reactor market.

These developments have placed the U.S. and its allies at a disadvantage in the competition for nuclear energy markets abroad. While some small programs are designed to engage developing nations with a nuclear interest, they are not adequate to the challenges posed by Russia and China or big enough to cover the full scope of nations that need to be engaged. Failure to rise to this challenge will severely limit the potential deployment of democratic nation next-gen reactors.

The Glasgow COP fueled a surge of support for the climate-nuclear nexus. The challenge now is to effectively build out the entire interrelated nuclear innovation system. At present we have a technology development and demonstration project. It won’t succeed without a fully developed support system. 

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security