The context for evaluating the contributions of nuclear power in the 21st Century has evolved significantly from the 20th Century, but the evaluation framework has not been adequately updated. As a result, the conversation around nuclear and the decision-making about its future are out of step with modern realities.
Among these new realities, we face challenges created by the demand posed by global climate change and low carbon energy needs. CO2 emissions have risen to 2% in 2017 – the first increase in two years. For all the talk, agreements and fighting over climate change, at the moment there is no plausible path forward to the Paris Climate objective of limited global temperature increases to 2º C. The slow decline of existing nuclear reactors and the uncertain future of the next generation of technologies has a major impact in this area as they are significant zero-carbon energy sources. Something big must change in the climate debate and part of that is accepting nuclear power as part of the technology solution set.
Threats are also being posed by the disruptive emerging technologies and non-state actors, requiring continuing excellence and improvement in nuclear governance. In addition, aggressive, state-backed international competitors – China and Russia – are generating geopolitical challenges, linking nuclear commerce directly to their global political ambitions. Newcomer nuclear nations in dangerous neighborhoods are contemplating nuclear power but their educational, regulatory, and training systems are in need of significant strengthening.
The regulatory systems have not adequately evolved to meet the safety and security needs of advanced reactor technologies. Challenges are also posed by the elimination of electricity inequality as power and reliability demands grow around the globe. There are currently 1.2 billion people globally without access to reliable electricity. Since electricity is the backbone of economic advancement, that number will decline as the century proceeds. But electricity growth must provide for clean air and public health.
Lastly, there is the potential for a geoengineering response to a failure to limit greenhouse gases by countries with the technological capacity to act on this option. There is little in place in the international system to stop any nation from acting on geoengineering if climate change poses a direct threat to their national security and stability – including the food supply. The international security implications of unilateral actions in this area can be globally profound and create significant security and economic uncertainties.
When evaluating the contributions of nuclear power in the 21st Century and drafting new policies, policymakers will need to recognize all the challenges and threats posed by these new realities.
“We do not have the luxury of being single-issue communities anymore.” – Kenneth Luongo, President of the Partnership for Global Security
All these issues are entwined and need more than single-issue silo communities to tackle them. The silver lining in this difficult situation is that the parties that care about climate, the future of nuclear power, geopolitics, and nuclear security and nonproliferation will need to find a way to work together.
It could take the form of a new type of partnership, a “break the mold” partnership, that can guide the next generation of nuclear power, serve as a credible voice on complex nuclear issues, generate high-level attention to challenges, and provide a platform for creative and effective problem-solving. It is potentially very powerful, and the mold is beginning to crack.
Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security