Since 9/11, the focus of nuclear security has been on eliminating and protecting weapon usable materials to prevent nuclear terrorism. But, as former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell has noted, while “we were trying to protect the country from terrorists, we became blind to what was going on in the rest of the world.” This also is true of nuclear security.
Competition between the U.S., China and Russia is the new global paradigm and this includes fighting for political, economic and diplomatic influence around the world. This geopolitical concept is bigger than the Trump administration - it’s a significant concern of the Pentagon brass and others protecting U.S. global prerogatives. Nuclear security in this context requires that the U.S. and its allies maintain an influential role in supporting and strengthening the nuclear security and non-proliferation rules, recommendations and regimes.
But two interrelated trends are eroding this important objective: First, the hollowing out of U.S. nuclear education, expertise and diplomacy; and second, the significantly weakened position of the U.S. nuclear industry at home and as a competitor for international projects. U.S. legal requirements for nuclear supply are designed to prevent proliferation - a national objective that is not true for Russia and China. Yet, Russian reactors are under construction in half a dozen countries, and China will be the world’s largest nuclear fleet operator by mid-century. By then most existing U.S. and Western European reactors will be ready for decommissioning.
Both Russia and China clearly see the looming vacuum of nuclear expertise, education, and infrastructure in the West and are positioning themselves to exploit it for their objectives - potentially leading a race to the bottom on security and proliferation standards. The U.S. and its allies need to provide robust leadership to reinforce the nuclear governance system. But that requires clearly recognizing new global realities, strengthening nuclear expertise, and supporting the competitiveness of the civil nuclear industry. Unfortunately, we seem to be blind to this big picture.
Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security
Photo Credit: Hoach Le Dinh