Expanding Nuclear: Evaluating National Security Implications

Aerial View of a Nuclear power plant

Amid declining global cooperation, the push for a significant expansion of nuclear energy raises concerns over the safety and security of nuclear facilities. Photo Credit: Unsplash+

by | Apr 24, 2024

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As the global community pushes towards tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050—a goal announced during COP-28—a new report from George Washington University’s Sharon Squassoni, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, casts a shadow over these ambitions. Squassoni’s just-released report scrutinizes the less-discussed consequences of such an expansion, particularly in light of recent vulnerabilities exposed by drone strikes on Ukrainian nuclear facilities.

The Risks of a Nuclear Scale-Up

The advocacy for small modular reactors (SMRs), specifically in developing countries, might be seen as a solution to energy needs, but according to Squassoni’s findings, it also introduces new risks. Her research points to the potential growth in nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and other security threats as nations pursue nuclear energy independence without considering the broader implications. Reactors that utilize highly enriched uranium or plutonium not only enhance energy capacity but also raise serious proliferation concerns, and designs that include lifetime cores or require reprocessing can accumulate plutonium, possibly endowing more states with latent nuclear weapons capabilities.

The Geopolitical Quandary of Nuclear Expansion

Pursuing nuclear energy is often viewed as a strategic move to mitigate dependence on foreign energy supplies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report highlights that this shift could inadvertently increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, an especially problematic potential issue as designs for SMRs vary widely, with few international restrictions in place. This creates a fertile ground for states with less robust governance structures to enter the nuclear arena, potentially further complicated by the aggressive promotion of nuclear technology by Russian and Chinese programs targeting these very states.

The call for a dramatic increase in nuclear energy comes when international cooperation is notably weak, threatening nuclear power facilities’ safe and secure operation. As international norms unravel and the credibility of crucial institutions wanes, the need for concerted action and stricter controls over nuclear technology becomes more pressing.

Squassoni emphasizes that the push for nuclear energy expansion may lead to a precarious global security environment without a parallel effort to address these significant risks. It calls for an urgent reassessment of nuclear strategies and an international consensus on limiting technologies that pose more significant proliferation risks. Only through careful consideration and cooperation can the world harness the benefits of atomic energy without succumbing to its potentially dire consequences.

 

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