The Biden administration’s executive order on the climate crisis has shattered business-as-usual issue silos by “clearly establish[ing] climate considerations as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security.”
The administration’s action is a welcome embrace of the cutting-edge agenda that was established by the Global Nexus Initiative (GNI) in 2015. GNI anticipated the need to blend climate change, nuclear energy, and global security as a response to overlapping international challenges.
The GNI partnership was born out of an understanding that the nuclear industry, nuclear policy, and climate change communities needed to work together to ensure that all carbon-free energy is accessible and secure.
GNI began as an experiment between non-traditional partners, but it has matured into the leading edge of policy development on the nexus agenda. It has covered issues ranging from the role and responsibility of nuclear power in a carbon constrained world, to the safeguards, security, and geopolitics of advanced reactors, to the evolving politics of nuclear power.
It achieved this trailblazing status with the support of a diverse, interdisciplinary, and international expert working group. Its members didn’t always agree but their array of expertise and experience was always welcomed.
The path that GNI has pioneered remains essential and the new Biden climate order has accelerated the need for additional action. As the nexus agenda moves forward, there are several critical areas that require attention.
An important objective is to identify where zero-carbon nuclear technology can be deployed and what governance advances are required to ensure that it remains safe and secure.
Based on a detailed set of criteria developed by PGS, 40 developing economy nations are potential targets for the deployment of smaller and advanced fuel cycle power reactors. The challenge is that many of these nations are nuclear newcomers and the advanced technologies will require adaptation of the existing approach to introducing nuclear energy to new nations. The evolution of this process has not yet been defined.
Particularly for reactors that use a variety of exotic fuel cycles, even experienced nuclear nations have not yet fully identified or addressed the numerous safeguards and security issues that will need to be addressed. There are many reactor designs and no consensus on which will reach commercialization. So, there is still considerable technical and policy work to be done in this space.
As the next-generation international nuclear market and its opportunities and challenges come into clearer focus, the issue of nuclear geopolitics will become more acute. Almost a year ago, the Department of Energy issued a jarring declaration that, “America is losing its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy to state-owned enterprises, including Russia and China.”
Influence in the international nuclear market is a multidimensional issue that has significant political, economic, and global security impacts. Historically, the nations that have dominated the international nuclear market have had outsized influence on the global governance regimes that control nuclear nonproliferation and security. In the past, the U.S. and its allies were in control. Today, it is Russia. In the future it could be China and Russia.
The state-owned nuclear enterprises of Russia and China are deeply funded extensions of the geopolitical objectives of their governments. They have established a head start on the U.S. and its allies in numerous developing economy nations where smaller reactors may be deployed.
Democratic nations have determined that a nuclear future dominated by authoritarian governments is a global security danger. But they have not identified an adequate response to the problem, although incremental progress has been made, including elevating nuclear power in the clean energy diplomacy process.
Under the NICE Future program, nuclear power is now part of the discussion at the yearly Clean Energy Ministerial meetings. However, nuclear energy has not been a central element of the discussions under the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The next COP host-nation, the United Kingdom, considers nuclear power a key element of its zero-carbon energy mix, and it may push it further up the priority list at the upcoming Glasgow meeting.
Still, these steps alone won’t revitalize democratic nation nuclear exports. Relying primarily on the private sector, and restraining collaboration among allies on technology, finance, and diplomatic outreach, is a hobble on the collective competitiveness of all of these nations. None is likely to maintain a commercial edge by going it alone against authoritarian state-owned nuclear competitors. Overcoming this imbalance requires a creative and equitable response among key allied nations that has yet to be identified.
The Biden climate change executive order infuses the climate imperative into the international security agenda. Given the volume and importance of these critical global concerns, and the insularity in many of their issue communities, the requirement to engage in cross-disciplinary integration will be a challenging disruption of the status quo. The Global Nexus Initiative anticipated the inevitability of this evolution at the end of the Obama administration, and it welcomes this new reality. Sealed issue silos are no longer an adequate response to today’s global challenges.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security