Leadership Strategy for Climate, Nuclear Energy, and Global Security

The recent blackouts in Texas are a black eye for the nation and underscore the perils of a changing climate. If the punishing winter storms of 2021 weren’t enough, the U.N. secretary general has called it a red alert that the latest national commitments to carbon reduction would reduce emissions by less than 1 percent.

This sets the stage for a U.S.-proposed climate summit on Earth Day.  Designed to escalate global zero-carbon commitments, the event also has the potential to be an important springboard for the November Glasgow COP supporting the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But the summit’s currently opaque scope raises questions about whether it will include all the clean energy technologies needed to meet the mid-century global carbon reductions that can avoid the worst climate impacts. This includes nuclear energy. Current nuclear power plants already produce the lion’s share of carbon-free electricity in the U.S. and other major industrialized nations. The next-generation of nuclear power offers promising support for carbon-free energy and economic growth of the developing world.

A new strategy report spearheaded by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and PGS makes the case that the next-generation of nuclear energy has a vital role to play in climate protection, as well as economic prosperity, national security, and global leadership. It was the result of extensive outreach and was endorsed by a bipartisan group of eight additional organizations.

The report identifies 10 high level objectives to establish and sustain U.S. leadership in the advanced reactor area.

A necessary first step in rebuilding the U.S. leadership position is to incorporate advanced nuclear energy into domestic and global decarbonization strategies. That’s why making sure the scope of the Biden climate summit includes nuclear energy is so important.

Re-establishing U.S. leadership in global nuclear energy and exports is another essential underpinning of this leadership role. The world is looking to the U.S. for direction on climate change responses and the nation has to be able to compete in the next-gen global reactor competition or abandon the market to Russia and China.

The deployment of smaller next-gen reactors is already occurring, but the first supplier has been Russia. It may soon be joined by China, a major challenger to the U.S. in technology development. In his recent confirmation hearing, the nominee for director of the CIA said, “Out-competing China will be the key to our national security in the decades ahead.”

The U.S. also must be a strong participant in the export market if it wants to exert continued influence over the international safety, security, and non-proliferation requirements for these reactors. Adjustments from current guidance will be required and the U.S. has been a strong advocate for strong international best practices in these vital areas.

These international guidelines are particularly important as the smaller advanced technologies expand into developing economy countries that require clean, distributed energy to support their sustainable development. A number of nations interested in advanced reactors may not be fully prepared for nuclear operations. A combination of strong best practices, IAEA engagement, and reactor supplier-nation support will be important for safe and secure operation.

The development of this new generation of reactors also can have significant domestic benefits.

It can lead to an emerging new industry that can create high-wage, high-technology jobs that support the domestic and international framework for the rapid commercialization of these reactors. But it also is important that the development of this industry correct past approaches and support environmental and social justice.

A strong advanced nuclear industry also can strengthen the existing nuclear fleet workforce and the faltering U.S. nuclear supply chain. Just this week, the administration launched a 100-day review to secure critical supply chains for minerals and materials including those essential for the energy sector.

The development of a leadership position on advanced reactors will require that the U.S. tackle two especially tough issues.

The first is the management of spent nuclear fuel, which will require the development of a consent-based approach. The second is to innovate the financial and business models for advanced reactors. The competition from Russia and China is from companies that are state-financed and directed. The private sector in the U.S. cannot be asked to stand alone in the face of these state-owned enterprises. There must be private-public partnerships.

The last several years have set the stage for a revitalization of U.S. nuclear leadership. The Congress has passed important legislation, the executive branch has launched necessary technology demonstration projects, and an influential segment of civil society has increasingly come to understand that the clean energy contribution of nuclear power is necessary.

The international environment also has changed. Nuclear power is not just about energy and economics. It is about national security and geopolitics. Playing by 20th century rules in this new game is a losing proposition.

Advanced nuclear energy is an essential element of the global quest to develop a full suite of clean energy technologies and strengthen global security. The NIA-PGS strategy offers a comprehensive roadmap for advanced reactors technology and the policy framework needed to support it. It should be welcomed at the Biden climate summit and beyond.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security