Last week the searing hot weather in Europe cast a worrisome light on the connection between climate change and nuclear power. Rather than offering a response to the carbon build-up in the atmosphere from fossil fuels, several nuclear reactors were adversely affected by the soaring temperatures.

Nuclear plants in Sweden and Finland were forced to reduce power because the temperature of the seawater they use for cooling was rising to unsafe levels. In France, four reactors were shut down because the temperature of their cooling water had risen, and water expelled from the plants threatened to overheat rivers and cause environmental damage.

The heatwave was a wake-up call for governments relying on renewable energy, too. The sultry conditions reduced wind output in Germany, Spain, Italy, the U.K., Denmark, and Sweden, even while solar power benefitted from abundant sunshine.

A changing climate is at the root of these challenges. University of Oxford scientists concluded that climate change made the current heatwave more than twice as likely.

Nuclear advocates should be concerned by this situation. It now seems the changing climate can be a catch-22 for water-cooled nuclear power plants. Because while their zero-carbon output is important for reaching the targets set by the Paris climate agreement, rising temperatures could cut the plants’ output - and their carbon-limiting benefits.

Next-generation reactors that do not use water as a coolant are one possible answer to this situation. They are especially attractive in arid regions like Africa, where the population is projected to double to 2.4 billion people by 2050, increasing energy demand. But OECD countries are not supporting the R&D, demonstration and licensing for this new class of reactors as aggressively as needed, and there are unanswered nuclear security and non-proliferation questions that need to be addressed as well.

These concerns may not bother Russia and China, who currently are in the advanced reactor driver’s seat and are actively seeking to dominate the energy supply of emerging economy nations as a geopolitical objective. This is an important, if non-traditional, global security test for the U.S. and its allies, who at the moment are wilting in the heat of it.

Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security

Photo by Frédéric Paulussen