Three events happened in the last week to underscore that the United States is losing its global leadership edge in the 21st Century – particularly in carbon reduction, nuclear innovation, and international governance.
First, the Trump administration shockingly stated that it assumes the global temperature will rise by 4 degree Celsius by 2100 – a full two degrees higher than the target set by the Paris Agreement. Then, one of the leading companies designing a next-generation nuclear reactor announced it was closing its doors. And last, a new book made the point that if the U.S. steps away, global policy making takes place without its input. Or, as the authors colorfully say, “if you are not at the table you are on the menu.”
The administration’s temperature projection was buried in a 500-page draft environmental impact statement related to transportation issues. It offered no remedial action to prevent this increase. The implications of a temperature rise of that magnitude are significant. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPPC) has noted that temperature increases above 1990 levels can cause changes in precipitation patterns, greater hurricane intensity, and arctic ice melting leading to sea level rise. The U.S. Global Climate Research Program starkly identified the impacts on the country by region and none of them are positive. Some of the projections have already been experienced, including drought and fires in the west, rain deluges in the mid-west, and intense hurricanes in the south-east and Gulf coasts.
On the heels of the administration’s revelation came the announcement that Transatomic Power was shutting down its operations. Transatomic was one of the first advanced technology, small reactor start-up companies whose design was intended to transcend todays large, predominantly light-water-cooled reactors, while supporting zero carbon emission objectives. There are still over 70 other companies pursuing next-generation reactor technologies. And, one positive development is a new law designed to speed up advanced reactor development and testing in the U.S.
But, the public and private financial support they are receiving in western nations pales in comparison to that provided to state owned nuclear companies in Russia and China. Indeed, some U.S. companies are looking to China as the test bed for their technology because of these challenges at home.
This advanced reactor class is new, and though many of their principles are based on previous designs, the regulatory, security, and safeguards systems for them are still nascent. This raises important global governance concerns because, historically, the dominant nuclear suppliers wrote the nuclear ground rules. In the 20th century this group was led by the U.S. and its allies. In this century the key players are increasingly Russia and China.
Two key features of these reactors are their ability to provide distributed power in under-served areas and their flexibility in deployment. Because of their coolant properties and design, they do not need to be deployed near water and can be placed in arid landscapes. However, these features also raise concerns about how they will be secured from insider threats and outside attack, whether effective safety regulations can be developed to coincide with their development schedule, and how their operation will be safeguarded to prevent potential nuclear weapons proliferation. (The Global Nexus Initiative will address the security and safeguards issues in its next report, set for release early next year.)
If the U.S. is not a major player in the advanced reactor game, it is unlikely that it is going to be able to exert significant influence over how these three key issues are addressed, and that has serious global security implications. There is little evidence that if Russia and China become the dominant suppliers of next generation nuclear technology that global nuclear governance will conform to the objectives and principles of the U.S. or its close allies.
Climate, clean energy, geopolitics, global competition, technological innovation, global security, governance are key pillars upon which the stability and prosperity of the 21st Century rests. At the moment, the U.S. is losing its leadership edge in all these areas.