COP26 once again shined a light on the role of nuclear energy in combating climate change. Disagreement over whether nuclear could be a meaningful part of a post-carbon future remains controversial. On one side, the U.S. announced that it will spend $25 million to help build reactors in Kenya, Brazil, and Indonesia. Russia is pushing for other nations to acknowledge nuclear power plants as environmentally friendly. The Czech Republic, France, and other EU countries announced an “alliance” to promote nuclear energy and natural gas as sustainable investments stating “If Europe is to win the climate war, it needs the nuclear energy.” On the other side, Germany and Belgium continue to draw down their nuclear sectors. Austria and New Zealand oppose classifying nuclear energy as a clean power source alongside renewables.
Nuclear power finds itself in an interesting position. As the world’s second-largest source of low-carbon power and generating around 10% of global electricity, nuclear is indispensable to the current energy equilibrium. At the same time, renewables are also an alternative to this already established nuclear alternative to fossil fuels. And, lest we forget, the advantages it offers as a source of energy can also be translated into geopolitical leverage via its weaponization. In this light, it is a special case whereby developments in the field of nuclear energy could chart a course for the future of the alternative energy megatrend itself and its security trajectory.
Nuclear power is a unique source of energy — a non-fossil-based fuel that matches the density of oil, gas, and coal and has proven its effectiveness for over half a century. Nuclear power clearly demonstrates the significance of the unanticipated consequences of technological advancement. Not unlike the transformation of military radar technology into the household microwave, nuclear power generation for civil use grew out of weapons research undertaken in the labs of the Manhattan Project. What was initially conceived as a method of mass destruction has become a viable tool for power generation.
While isolated incidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima give rise to adverse public opinion and consequent political responses, nuclear power generation retains an essential role in the global energy balance.
A possible template for alternative energy developments?
Nuclear development has already influenced the visions and some of the practices permeating the alternative energy megatrend. It is characterized by the same need for extensive government intervention, and the invisible hand of the market has touched relatively lightly upon nuclear energy. Second, social attitudes and political perception affect the development and deployment of nuclear technologies, which could be an indicator as to how global society will come to influence the renewables megatrend. For example, “Alternative energy adherents consider green energy ‘good’, moral and ethical, while everything else, from nuclear power to fossil fuels and blue hydrogen are ‘bad’.” Third, the curtailment of nuclear energy diffusion could reinforce the development of renewable technologies and provide added momentum for the megatrend.
Nuclear energy technologies have gone through several developmental stages, and their dynamics provide a preview of the vagaries the alternative energy megatrend could experience. After cresting a wave of technological euphoria following World War II, nuclear power development faced increasing societal resistance after the attention-grabbing disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Today, while support remains uneven, nuclear power advocates had a seat at the table in Glasgow.
As is the case with renewables, nuclear power’s greatest potential to transform the global energy landscape lies with currently unrealized technologies. During the COP26 talks, the U.S. company NuScale reached an agreement with Romania to build a small modular nuclear reactor, the first in Europe. Another area (but one that is still theoretical) is the potential development of nuclear fusion technology.
Alternative energy as a substitute for nuclear power
The trajectory of the alternative energy megatrend can also be impacted by the push to limit nuclear energy. The promise offered by nuclear power is a double-edged sword — one state’s approach to energy security could easily become another’s strategic vulnerability. Being the only current alternative to fossil fuels that has the energy density and capacity to meet energy demand, nuclear power opens avenues for the pursuit of development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is the potential drawbacks of nuclear power that may propel support for and accelerate the development of renewables. Indeed, renewable energy technologies could be pursued as both an alternative to fossil fuels and as an alternative to nuclear power.
Despite numerous academic and technical studies underscoring the strenuous safety standards that nuclear plants meet, global society remains concerned about nuclear power due primarily to persistent doubts about its safety and transparency. Fueled by the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster, the anti-nuclear power movement mobilized political and economic forces that set back nuclear technological development for many years. Although there have been few serious plant-safety incidents, safety concerns again came to the fore with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant accident. In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, several states, seeking to allay public fears, took a tough stance on nuclear energy development. While opinions diverge, nuclear power remains unthinkable in some countries because of the strength of the actors organized against it.
Safety concerns, the perceived lack of transparency, and the broader lack of approval for nuclear energy are already affecting the advancement of the alternative energy megatrend. Some markets that are turning away from nuclear power realize they need to fill the resulting vacuum. A political decision to phase out nuclear energy could lead to the freeing of monetary resources for renewable energy development. From a technological perspective, some of the developed economies in Europe, such as Germany and Switzerland, can consider boosting investment in extensive alternative energy-generating capacity.
Despite new U.S. financial support for nuclear power development in Kenya, Brazil, and Indonesia, nuclear non-proliferation efforts could be reinforced by providing renewables as a viable replacement to nuclear power. As part of non-proliferation regimes, developed economies could offer preferential terms for installing renewable technologies, as well as assist in their grid integration, maintenance, and further development in return for abstinence from pursuing nuclear energy development or nuclear weapons.
However, the removal of nuclear power from the energy mix could be detrimental to alternative energy developments. Faced with expanded demand and reduced supply of power, some states could be forced to find quick, reliable, and inexpensive solutions, which, at present, can be found mainly in improved fossil fuel-generating facilities, such as natural gas plants, coal, or increased imports.
Similarly, providing current alternative energy technologies to actors as encouragement to forego nuclear options may simply not work. Not all technologies are at the disposal of governments to offer. More and more alternative energy technology patents are owned by private sector companies that will have different considerations and motives beyond stemming nuclear proliferation. Also, offering solar power capacity, for example, may not be very attractive for a country that is not exposed to much sunlight.
An important difference is emerging between nuclear and renewable energy — the latter has growing societal acceptability. This acceptability does not discount the parallels between nuclear power developments and the megatrend. Indeed, it demonstrates how the future development of both renewables and nuclear power can be impacted by public perception. Should renewable technologies encounter concerns about their potential dangers and outstanding environmental and safety issues, their future acceptability could be similarly tainted.
One last thought on the nexus of nuclear energy and alternative energy. The conversion of civil nuclear power technology into weapons technologies is difficult to control, let alone stop. As both a fuel and a weapon, nuclear energy has the greatest impact on renewables and illustrates their potential future. For one, the hazards of nuclear energy present today’s renewables as a safe alternative. On the other hand, should technological advancements create military capabilities for renewable energy sources, there are obvious parallels with nuclear weapons proliferation. Furthermore, the paradigm-changing role of the military in incentivizing nuclear technology development could be repeated for renewables if a potential for weaponization comes to light.