CIVIL NUCLEAR COMPETITION, CLIMATE, AND GLOBAL SECURITY

We’re not winning the war on carbon and the failure to act effectively on this challenge has real domestic and global security consequences. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen to the highest level in 800,000 years with no dip in sight.  It has been a steady climb for over 60 years. While developed nations have driven most of this rise, it is developing nations that are sustaining it in this century.

In the U.S., this summer was a grim reminder of the increasing toll that climate change is taking on the country. Tinder-dry conditions in the West fueled hundreds of destructive wildfires that charred more than 10,000 square miles, the smoke from which plagued millions of residents.

In the East, yet another “1,000-year rain event”, Hurricane Florence, crushed the Carolina’s. This after the massive destruction of Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year and Super Storm Sandy’s paralyzing of the New York metro area in 2012.

One of the puzzling aspects of tackling the climate challenge is the unwillingness of many that clearly understand the dire implications of failure to embrace the full solution set. In this selective energy generation hierarchy, zero-carbon wind and solar energy sources are fully embraced but equally emission-free nuclear power is at best tolerated at current levels or outright opposed. Natural gas is embraced as a “bridge fuel” but it is no carbon reduction panacea and is likely to be a critical power source for at least another 15 years, taking us into the middle phase of this century.

The continuing carbon challenge is going to be driven by energy demand in developing economies and by urban expansion in Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Projections for 2040 are for U.S. energy demand to be static and Europe and Japan to decrease. Some of the developing economy countries may not have the expansive space to widely deploy solar and wind technologies, particularly in Asia. As a result, many have an interest in nuclear power, but not much experience with it.

If nuclear is part of the full range of options for cleanly powering these economies, who will supply it and how will it be effectively governed? Traditional nuclear suppliers, particularly the U.S., are on their heels and their governments are not providing much of an effective lifeline. But, state-backed companies in Russia and China are expanding their reach and deliberately integrating their global civil nuclear outreach into their geopolitical strategies.

There are real geopolitical and security consequences to ceding the global nuclear power playing field to Russia and China. They are trying to limit the U.S. and allied democracies influence in the world. They have not been strong initiators of proposals for strengthening global nuclear governance. They may be more willing to provide sensitive nuclear technologies, like uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing equipment, if it is a condition of the recipient nation. They may not consider nuclear terrorism to be as serious a concern as other nuclear nations.

The U.S. and its allies are not out of the global nuclear game yet, especially since South Korea has emerged as a significant nuclear supplier. These two allies have collaborated on big nuclear projects in the past. But they also are competitors for new business. That model may be outmoded in the face of the challenge from Russia and China. The U.S. and South Korea need to work more closely together on analyzing potential markets, supporting new technologies, strengthening nuclear governance, and leveraging their national and industrial strengths in concert.

Nuclear competition in the 20th century may have been dominated by commercial and energy imperatives. But in the 21st Century, it is being driven by the need for clean energy, effective global governance, and geopolitical influence. Given the impact of climate change on all nations and the implications of ceding global influence to authoritarian competitors, strengthened U.S.-South Korea nuclear collaboration seems both important and inevitable.

Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security

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