Nuclear, Climate, and the Next Election

The debate over the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change is heating up like the atmosphere. But it's amounting to a lot of hot air because it is not clear that America’s foremost presidential aspirants and allied leaders fully understand the essential connection between these issues.

At a CNN Town Hall on climate change, 10 Democratic party candidates agreed that we are facing a crisis. But they split on whether nuclear power should have a role in combating a warming planet. Their views ranged from phasing out existing plants to increasing federal spending for next generation technologies. Generally, however, most were uneasy with the question and vague on the facts.

On the other side of the aisle, the current administration is thinking deeply about the role of nuclear power in the 21st century. It is trying to strengthen American exports, recognizes the geopolitical implications of nuclear power, and has created a working group of senior government officials to assess issues related to U.S. competitiveness in the nuclear fuel cycle. But, it does not believe that climate change is an existential threat, a crisis, or even an issue worth tackling. So, there is a major disconnect between the issues that need to be knitted together and, as a result, its policy framework is inadequate.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that coal and natural gas account for 98% of carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. electric power sector, which accounts for about one-third of total emissions from the country. Carbon-free electricity sources account for about 35% of U.S. electricity generation. Within that percentage, currently operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. account for about 56% of the carbon-free electric generation, renewables 22% and hydro power 21%.

Renewables will continue to grow, increasing their percentage of carbon-free power. But it is a long road to a zero-carbon world and doing it with renewables alone is likely to make it considerably tougher. Then there is the reality that the U.S. is only part of the carbon problem and the decisions of China, India, and many developing economy nations are going to have important impacts on how greenhouse gasses grow, or don’t, in this century.
Missing from the CNN debate, and any of the candidate’s responses, was the third key issue in the nuclear-climate connection – global security. It is the nexus of these three key issues that represent the complete policy framework for considering the future of nuclear power and its implications.

If nuclear power is going to continue to contribute to limiting global carbon emissions, then it has to be protected against cyber, proliferation, and terrorist threats. If the future is smaller, remotely deployed reactors in developing economy countries, then the international community will require strong assurances that these reactors are being protected and operated consistent with high standards. The export of existing or next generation nuclear power plants is one front in the big power battle between the U.S., China, and Russia for geopolitical influence. The winner of this competition matters, as it very likely will have significant influence over the evolution of the nuclear governance system in this century – for better or worse.

The 2020 presidential election in the U.S. is an important watershed. But leadership contests are also occurring in key allied nations. There seems to be rolling prime ministers in the U.K. Canadian elections will occur this Fall. Japan is going to the polls in 2021. And South Korea and France will choose their leadership in 2022. Each of these nations has a critical role in global nuclear technology development, commerce, and geopolitics. At the moment, there is not strong consensus among them on the role of nuclear power in the coming decades.

Leadership from the U.S. is likely going to be required to bring these key countries together. But that will be difficult if there is not agreement on the right policy framework for how to position nuclear power as a global asset that promotes carbon reduction, innovation, and global security. Those seeking to lead the U.S. need to understand and act on this critical global issue intersection and work to bring allied nations along. Unfortunately, at the moment, they don’t seem to be able to connect the dots.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security