The role and responsibility of nuclear energy after Paris

January 21, 2016

The debate over the relevance of nuclear power in a carbon-constrained world must confront two realities. First, nuclear power has an important role in the battle against climate change, along with other low-carbon energy sources. Without it, there is little chance of holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius or lower in this century. Second, by mid-century, developing nations will likely be the largest community of nuclear operators. A number of these nations are not democracies, and collectively they will have amassed less operational experience than the developed world has today. This places a great responsibility on all nations to ensure that nuclear energy is effectively managed everywhere. These facts need to form the foundation of a modernized nuclear policy in the 21st century.

At present, nuclear power is one of the key ways to avoid carbon emissions, eliminating the equivalent of 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. In 2012, the world emitted roughly 45 billion tons of greenhouses gasses. By 2030, that number needs to decline to around 35 billion tons to meet the global-temperature goal by the end of the century. Nuclear power will therefore play a major role in this process for at least the next 50 years.

The role of nuclear power in the energy mix of the world’s largest carbon emitters—China, the United States, the European Union, and India—is clear, but it is not similar in all cases.

China is constructing 24 new plants and plans to add almost twice that number by the end of the century. India has six plants under construction and more than 30 others planned. This nuclear expansion was reflected in the national declarations from both nations, issued in preparation for the UN climate meeting in Paris. In the EU, by contrast, nuclear power clearly is in decline, with few reactors under construction, with Germany phasing out all nuclear power, and with France committed to reducing its share of nuclear-generated electricity by a third over the next decade. In the United States, the Obama administration has recognized the existing and possibly expanded role of nuclear power, yet a number of issues, including competition from cheaper energy sources like natural gas and the growth of renewable energy, pose challenges for existing and new reactors alike.

Thus while North America and Europe will remain important nuclear operators in this century, the real growth is in China and India, coupled with newcomer nuclear states in Asia, the Middle East, and possibly Africa. Given this trajectory, it may be time to revisit the political and policy thinking behind the world’s approach to nuclear energy—and how it must adapt to a carbon-constrained future.

The nature of nuclear power has made it a necessary part of debates on nuclear weapons, arms control, and nonproliferation. There are also real and perceived concerns about nuclear safety and security, the long-term storage of spent fuel, and the health impacts of radiation. These issues have dominated the nuclear-power debate for the past 60 years. But this discussion must now evolve and include the carbon-reduction benefits of nuclear power and its implications.

Indeed, if nuclear power is to be part of the climate-change solution, the nations of the world must significantly strengthen their nuclear-governance system to address gaps in nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation in a comprehensive manner. This will require cultural change, political realignment, and cooperation among governments, the private sector, and the nuclear-policy community. None of it will be easy, especially the dissolution of long-standing battle lines, yet several approaches can be particularly effective.

As a first step, the burden of nuclear responsibility must expand to include those countries building and operating the greatest number of reactors. At present, most nuclear governance and regulation is national and opaque. The situation demands stronger international rules, which will require the support of leading nuclear-energy states. Unfortunately, the nations driving nuclear-power growth, particularly China and India, and emerging nuclear suppliers, including Russia and South Korea, do not have strong records of international leadership and innovation on nuclear governance. One way to demonstrate leadership is to embrace new and strengthened international rules instead of hiding behind the shield of sovereignty. A show of support for the proposed International Convention on Nuclear Security at the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington would be one important step in the right direction.

Another area of opportunity is international cooperation on the regulation of the next generation of nuclear reactors. There is considerable governmental and private-sector investment in next-generation nuclear reactors, with the expectation that they will be smaller, less proliferation-prone, easier to site, and cheaper to build than today’s light-water reactors. Today, the interactions between national regulatory bodies are limited, with some regional meetings and one large US-hosted event after the first nuclear summit. Expanding these discussions more broadly is important and will avoid fractured and inconsistent rules for this new class of reactors.

The nuclear industry and the nuclear-policy community will also need to make new accommodations with one another in an era when climate change rivals nuclear annihilation as the globe’s top threat. Neither of these key stakeholders is monolithic, and it is unrealistic to expect that all of the parties involved will be willing to work together. But some progress is being made, and the Global Nexus Initiative is an example of how diverse constituencies are coming together to try to develop realistic recommendations that transcend past divisions. The initiative was created by two non-traditional partners—the nuclear industry’s lobbying group and a nuclear-policy think tank—with the goal of identifying the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change and how to best manage its implications for global security.

Finally, governments and the nuclear industry can take a page from the Paris climate talks, where nations came to the table with specific proposals, in the form of national declarations, designed to meet global climate objectives. This was a new, bottom-up approach to addressing rising greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the Nuclear Security Summit process has encouraged national and multilateral pledge-making on nuclear security. As the summits end in 2016, this commitment-making process should continue and be expanded to include other nuclear areas, creating a continuing and broadened nuclear-commitment process. These commitments could include offering greater transparency to a concerned public, making proposals to improve safety and security, and lending technical, educational, and financial support to nuclear newcomer nations. The mechanism for managing this process could be established within the International Atomic Energy Agency, which can also follow the Paris example of commissioning expert assessments of national commitments, reviewing progress every five years, and seeking new pledges that can be evaluated and measured in a transparent fashion.

Achieving the massive decarbonization of the global energy system that the Paris agreement envisions will require a mix of existing and new technologies. With global electricity output expected to grow by 50 percent by 2040, no single energy technology will be sufficient to meet the Paris objectives, and nuclear power will be an important component. But its center of gravity is shifting from west to east, raising new questions and challenges. These need to be addressed by cooperation among all relevant parties in support of a significant evolution of the nuclear-governance system. Anything less will fall short of providing the level of global confidence needed for nuclear power to make a meaningful contribution to a carbon-constrained world.