Managing the Nuclear-Climate Nexus in Asia

Another desperate SOS on the ravages of climate change was fired off by the United Nations Secretary General this week. He warned that the world is flirting with “suicide” because of its continued dependence on fossil fuels and noted that the survival of humanity was “impossible” without leadership from the U.S.

No matter how committed to a zero-carbon future the incoming administration in Washington may be, it’s a very tall order for any one country to save all of humanity.  It will need significant assistance from allies. But those partners, particularly in Asia, are not helping much with the heavy lifting that is required. 

The U.S. along with its top two Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, account for about 20% of the world’s total CO2 emissions.  But that is almost a third less than the more than 10 gigatons produced by China alone.

The Biden administration has made a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Japan similarly has promised carbon neutrality by that date, as has South Korea.

The disconnect that has emerged among these nations is over how they will meet these commitments.  All three are all in on wind and solar power. But only the U.S. plan has a commitment to supporting future nuclear power. That makes sense since existing nuclear plants in the U.S. provide nearly 55% of America’s carbon-free electricity.

Japan and South Korea also are highly dependent on nuclear power for their carbon-free electricity generation but both nations are in a nuclear swoon precipitated by the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Interestingly, Japan and Korea, along with China, are the world’s largest financers of overseas coal plants. 

A new report on the climate and geopolitical implications of Japan’s deepening disconnect from nuclear power, makes clear that the result has been a dramatically increased dependence on dirtier fuels. While nuclear energy once accounted for 30% of Japan’s electricity generation, it now provides less than 8%. The shortfall has been replaced by imported coal and gas. Serious questions have been raised about how Japan’s industrial giants will be powered under the 2050 zero-carbon objective and whether it can be met without renewed nuclear power.

Similarly, South Korea, is dependent on nuclear power for 30% of its electricity mix while another 65% is provided by coal and natural gas, with the remaining 5% coming from renewables and hydro power. But the current Korean government plans to “exit the era of nuclear power” despite the likelihood that it will not be able to sufficiently scale is renewable energy production on the timescale to which it has committed.

Compounding the climate concerns about a nuclear divorce in Japan and South Korea is the geopolitical and global security implications of their decreased commitment.  

Japan has been a significant force in global nuclear technology R&D and export for decades. South Korea is the only U.S.-aligned nation to build an operating nuclear plant in the Middle East, a volatile region primed for nuclear power’s expansion. The nuclear industries in both Asian countries are not eager to cede their international involvement in nuclear commerce to competitors including Russia and particularly China.

And the U.S. should not sit by idly and let this happen. For one thing, there is a growing consensus that China is the number one national security threat and it must be aggressively countered. Based on the behavior of China and Russia in the growing global energy and technology competition, allowing either of these authoritarian governments to control international nuclear commerce in this century will be a major mistake that may not be reversible.

There are two potential new developments under consideration by the incoming administration that could help with both the geopolitical and climate dimensions of this challenge.

One is consideration of an Asia Czar, or several small tsars, in the White House that would coordinate responses to challenges from China. That could help bring needed unity to a complex and fragmented policy.

This coordination also should include intensive cooperation with European allies. The European Union already has signaled its  openness to a new strategic alliance with the U.S. to counter China’s “growing international assertiveness.” And NATO also may expand its focus to China.

The other element is Biden’s plan for a Summit for Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.”  This gathering is built on the concept of the Obama-era Nuclear Security Summits.  It would benefit from retaining a nuclear component and seeking to build a consensus among the participants on the importance of preserving deep democratic nation involvement in the global nuclear market. This is essential to ensure strong global nuclear nonproliferation and security as well as support zero-carbon.

The climate change challenge is not getting any easier and concerns about China continue to grow. These intersecting climate and geopolitical imperatives can begin to reframe the global discussion on the role of nuclear power in this century and that could develop into a consensus under a democracy summit agenda. That process could provide the opportunity for American allies in Asia to rethink their negative nuclear calculations. And that recalculation is vitally important because we can’t allow carbon or China to make the world unlivable.