Outflanking China on Future Nuclear Standards

After a two-hour call with China’s President Xi Jinping, President Biden warned the nation that, “We don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch” in reference to the technology competition between the two countries. Earlier in the day he launched a China Task Force at the defense department that will deliver rapid recommendations on how to counter the challenges posed by China.

The recently declassified U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, originally published in February 2018, provides a synopsis of the challenges the U.S. and its allies face from China.

Among the “assumptions” underlying the strategy are several that are very relevant to how nuclear energy develops in this decade and whether it will be effectively governed for the remainder of the century. These include the assertions that “China will circumvent international rules and norms to gain an advantage” and that “China seeks to dominate cutting-edge technologies.” 

These statements are not new, but when coupled with a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal about how China is seeking to control international technology standards across multiple “fields of the future” the resulting picture is very troubling when viewed through the lens of global nuclear security.

As the Journal report notes, “To the consternation of many Western countries, Beijing is employing state funding and political influence to define the norms for all manner of cutting-edge technologies.”
The strategy is two-fold – obtaining positions of influence in international standards organizations and using the Belt and Road Initiative to promote China’s preferred standards.

The transformation of international organizations from within was a major theme in the State Department Policy Planning staff’s recently published, The Elements of the China Challenge.

For the Belt and Road strategy, the Journal report notes that, “China offers countries subsidies to win the work and then uses its standards to lock in partner nations that would face major costs in switching to international standards.”

The nuclear challenge lies in the development of next-generation nuclear energy technologies and the need to create the standards and governance regime for them so that they can be safely and securely deployed anywhere around the globe.

In a recent analysis for a major U.S. philanthropic foundation, the authors noted that, “the risks and policy implications of these new reactor technologies and their use on a global scale are not currently well understood…[and]…a framework for managing and minimizing the risks associated with new reactors” needs to be developed where it does not exist.

The development of the next-generation nuclear governance regime is a significant issue because these technologies constitute a significant evolution from existing nuclear power reactors. Their smaller size and non-traditional coolants and fuel cycles make them deployable for many different circumstances. Zero-carbon energy production is the primary rationale, but they also can be used for industrial power, hydrogen production, water desalination, and to power military bases and weapons.

The target international market for these reactors is increasingly looking like developing nations with small electric grids, serious climate change impacts, and growing populations. Many of these nations are not experienced with nuclear energy operation and additional measures will be required to prepare them for this task.

This process could create a potential battleground between the U.S. and China with effective nuclear nonproliferation and security standards hanging in the balance.

One arena where this conflict could play out is at the International Atomic Energy Agency. It will need to evolve its current approach to preparing new nuclear nations to account for the unique features of the novel nuclear technologies. That will require the approval of many different nations. Historically, the nations that are most aggressively selling into the global nuclear market have greater influence over international guidelines. That precedent argues for being the first to cultivate next-generation nuclear clients if a country wants to set the new governance baseline.

Additional support to these new nuclear nations likely will need to be provided by the reactor suppliers and their national governments. This process is not well established among democratic nation nuclear exporters, placing them at a disadvantage. But it is a core element of the export strategy of state-owned nuclear enterprises, like those in China.

The technology race between the U.S. and China on next-generation nuclear power has been developing under the radar. But losing that race could become a high-profile failure for global security if it results in weakened security and nonproliferation standards.

If China is able to establish a next-generation nuclear power beachhead in one or several developing countries before new international nuclear governance rules are established for these technologies, it can tailor the guidelines to its advantage and lock them in. That could intensify nuclear dangers in an already precarious international security environment.

That argues for American aggressiveness, perseverance, and effectiveness in developing and positioning its next-generation technologies. As the President said, “they’re going to eat our lunch” if the country does not get moving.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security