The Nuclear-Climate-Security Conversation Gains Altitude

The nuclear-climate-global security discussion has ramped-up in recent weeks, led by several high-profile international organizations responding to the growing global concern about the impact of increasing greenhouse gasses. But the debate is still balkanized with energy and technology garnering more attention than their security implications.

In Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held a unique conference on the role of nuclear power in combatting climate change. The event was designed to assess the role of nuclear power in contributing to global clean energy objectives and the opportunities and challenges the technology faces in meeting these goals. Over 70 countries were represented, and the major speakers came from a mix of countries, spanning large nuclear operators like the U.S. and France to nascent nuclear nations like Egypt and Morocco.

The IAEA’s Acting Director General, Cornel Feruta, captured the nuclear-climate conundrum in his opening remarks. Nuclear energy, he stated, “accounts for one-third of all low-carbon electricity generated today. That fact deserves to be better known.” He further noted, “It is difficult to see how the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved without a significant increase in the use of nuclear power in the coming decades.”

However, Feruta also cautioned that, “like all technologies, nuclear power brings benefits and risks…and it is not always judged purely on the basis of scientific facts,” a reference to persistent public concern about nuclear technologies. Other speakers noted the importance of cost competitiveness for nuclear power to continue its low-carbon contribution.

Hoesung Lee, Chair of the United Nations (U.N.) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that in the uphill battle to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, consistent with the Paris Agreement, “[C]limate change needs all the help it can get” and that nuclear power can contribute to decarbonization particularly over the next 30 years.

Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlighted the, “growing and dangerous disconnect between climate emissions reports…and what is happening in real life.” Drawing on IEA energy data, he noted that, “[W]e do not have the luxury to pick our favorite technologies,” and that support for existing nuclear plants and new technologies were required by, “those governments that take climate change and electricity security seriously.”

Also entering the climate debate was the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which produced a new analysis calling for a dramatic $75 per ton tax on fossil fuel burning as the most effective approach to mitigate climate change. The IMF cautioned that, “[G]lobal warming is threatening our planet and living standards around the world…the window of opportunity…is closing rapidly.” Unstated in the IMF assessment, but, clearly articulated by the IAEA’s Feruta is the fact that “around 70% of the world’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels…and together with hydropower, nuclear is the only low-carbon source of energy that can replace fossil fuels for 24/7 baseload power,” even as “wind and solar power will continue to grow.”

While the IAEA and IMF were focusing on the energy-climate connection, several other new analyses were focused on the global security impacts of climate change. A new report by the Council on Foreign Relations clearly underscores that climate change can cause “financial market failures” and that its impacts on the financial viability of U.S. energy firms can cause “disruptions to domestic energy supply” which have global and national security implications. A prior assessment by the U.S. Federal Reserve identified how higher global temperatures will impact the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, a group of 64 senior military, national security, and intelligence officials presented a new plan that called on the U.S. to recognize climate change as a “vital national security threat” and offered recommendations for how to “prepare for and prevent” this danger.

The developments of the past few weeks are important and demonstrate that the nuclear-climate-security discussion is maturing, advancing, and elevating. However, it is still disjointed, with the global energy and nuclear technology discussion mostly divorced from its global security significance. The Global Nexus Initiative has been drawing these three critical issues into a collaborative framework for the past four years and the new voices in this conversation are welcome. It may be time to now join all the key stakeholders into a broad and effective coalition that in sum is more effective and comprehensive than its individual parts.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security