COVID-19 Lessons for Next-Gen Nuclear Governance

As the novel coronavirus rips across the global landscape, it would seem to have little connection to the governance regime required for the rapidly developing next generation of nuclear energy. But there are three essential connections – transparency, trust, and international cooperation.

A predisposition for opacity and a weak bond of trust are at the root of many persistent public fears about nuclear power. But there is the opportunity to effectively address and possibly ameliorate these issues as next-gen technologies move from development to deployment. To achieve that, the framework for the governance of these technologies needs to be developed early, be demonstrably effective, and generate strong support from responsible nuclear nations. Missing the opportunity to build this policy framework now will open the door to future problems and bad policy.

The leadership and degree of international cooperation, or competition, in the development of this nuclear governance framework is particularly important.

Small modular and advanced reactors (SM&ARs) are being pursued by a number of countries, including democratic allies like the U.S., Canada, U.K., and South Korea. They are facing off against the authoritarian governments of Russia and China. All developers are racing to move their designs to deployment while also trying to lock up future export markets.

An important target market of these reactors is decentralized, small grid, developing economy nations. For example, in Africa alone, one-third of the continent’s nations are considering nuclear power. This has fueled growing alarm about Russia’s and China’s increasing economic ties with Africa and the potential that they will become the continent’s preferred nuclear supplier. Concerns are focused on how nuclear inexperienced nations will be supported and how effectively nuclear proliferation, security, terrorism and other challenges will be addressed.

COVID-19 is relevant in this environment because it is a real-world example of how nations prioritize transparency and international responsibility in managing a transnational security crisis. The responses to the coronavirus offer some indication of how nations might prepare for, and respond to, unexpected nuclear challenges in nations to which they have exported next-gen reactors.

China, for example, has faced serious questions about how transparent it was with the international community about the timeline, severity, and origin of the novel coronavirus. This apprehension is intensified by an analysis of the comprehensive social media machine that China has developed and deployed to shape to its advantage international media and public views on a host of issues. Russia’s intentional disinformation campaigns against competitor nations are well documented and its powerful online influence ignited a U.S. political crisis.

As COVID-19 has illustrated, disinformation and delay can result in greater international danger and deaths. The handling of the virus outbreak and the communications capabilities of the centrally controlled governments raise worries about how much trust can be placed in their willingness to act transparently should a nuclear crisis arise involving their technology.

The other relevant COVID-19 issue is how nations exercise their muscle with major international institutions responsible for global wellbeing. In the COVID-19 case, there has been serious criticism about the influence China has exerted over the World Health Organization (WHO) and its pronouncements about the virus. This has eroded confidence in the objectivity and mission of the global health organization, despite its valuable mission.

The nuclear corollary to WHO is roughly the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As U.S. and allied nation nuclear exports have significantly declined, Russia has picked up the slack and China is nipping at its heels. These nations have significant nuclear export advantages across large and small technology platforms because they finance their nuclear industry, integrate their exports into their geopolitical strategies, and offer nuclear neophytes a one-stop shop. This package offers the potential for Russia and China to corner the global market for smaller next-gen reactors.

If successful in that strategy, they may exert increased influence in the IAEA commensurate with their civil nuclear strength. That is how the U.S. and allied nations operated when they were in control of the global nuclear market. And that’s why it’s vital for them to remain viable in the next phase of the global nuclear power game. Without a balance of influences in the IAEA, next-gen nuclear governance may be less effective and comprehensive than global circumstances demand. And that can lead to very unfortunate results.

COVID-19 is a nasty wake-up call that in a globally interwoven world, crises cannot be contained by borders alone. It illustrates that serious gaps remain in the ability of the international community to collaborate in the face of transnational challenges. And it underscores that not all nations embrace the transparency that is required to build trust. These are important lessons from a painful period. They need to be incorporated into an effective, new framework for next-gen nuclear governance. That process should begin now. 

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security