Politics of Next-Gen Nuclear Energy Respond to New Realities

This year has been a cold slap in the face to business-as-usual. But, apparently, it has not been enough to jolt us from our pre-COVID cocoons of complacency. That may be changing, as the responses to important, but siloed, issues begin to intersect to form an effective solution set.

Reigning in global carbon emissions remains a critical, stubborn global challenge. Because of the economic impact of  the novel corona virus, emissions are projected to be 7% less in 2020 than in 2019. But that trend is already being reversed as global industry gears up and high level calls for a “green” restart go unheeded. The result, as identified in an interesting new analysis, is that over the next 50 years, the earth’s barely livable hot zone could expand from 1% to 19% of its surface. This zone would include some of the world’s most populous, poverty stricken, and precarious nations.

An excellent new article on climate strategy notes that the fixation on a transformative climate revolution is undercutting the practical but impactful actions that can be taken within the current confines of national and international politics.

One element of the strategy is the “big role” that nuclear power could play in reducing global electric power emissions. But, the article underscores that this will require new technologies that can bring down the high costs of nuclear energy. And that will require significantly more investment and sustained political support.

Interestingly, in the sad circus that now passes for American policymaking, a strong bipartisan consensus has solidified on the need for the next generation of nuclear power.

This foundation has been built on bipartisan legislation that has sought to modernize the regulatory structure of advanced reactors, spur on accelerated demonstration of the technologies, and provide funding for eventual export.

The change in export support is fairly radical, as a new agency created by the Congress, the International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), has removed a legacy prohibition on financially supporting nuclear projects.

But, even the IDFC’s announcement of the potential policy change, which made specific reference to the role advanced reactors could play in emerging markets and its value for carbon reduction, nonproliferation standards, and U.S. global influence, generated a rattled response about the security dangers of changing the nuclear status quo.

The issue of maintaining strong nonproliferation standards is absolutely critical to global security and the future of nuclear power. Despite its current state of disorder, the U.S., and its allies, are better equipped to lead that fight than Russia or China, which very effectively use state financing to export their reactors and undermine U.S. nonproliferation values.

But you can’t win a fight if you are not in the ring, and this is something that both sides of the political aisle in America now grasp.

While the country is being wracked by partisanship in a presidential election year, both the Democrats-only House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the presumptive Democratic party nominee have expressed support for advanced nuclear technologies. In addition, a new organization, formed by a group of politically progressive women, promises fresh approaches to working with the climate advocacy community to foster better understanding of the role of next-gen nuclear.

These progressive positions are not in conflict with the current administration which recently released a new U.S. nuclear export strategy and is aggressively pursuing next-gen reactor technologies to support evolving defense objectives and other national goals.

Beyond the U.S., the Liberal Party government of Canada continues its aggressive work on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) including developing an SMR Action Plan that follows its 2018 SMR Roadmap. Further, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister recently stated, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no way of achieving our goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear energy.”  This reference encompassed all nuclear technologies including the next generation.

This cross-party political support will make it difficult to drive a political wedge that excludes next-gen nuclear from being part of the global climate and clean energy solution set. And, surprisingly, the political mainstream seems to be ahead of the majority of the non-governmental community on the nexus of these issues.

Too often the environmental and nuclear nonproliferation communities close out important global concerns that do not fit neatly into their traditional issue scope. But the intensifying intersection of new global realities is making it clear that the business-as-usual issue silos cannot thrive or ultimately survive in this new environment. Creative cross-sector thinking is beginning to seep to the surface. It’s value certainly will become contagious.  

Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security