Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century
On October 17, the Center for the National Interest and the Energy Innovation Reform Project jointly hosted a panel discussion entitled “Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century.” Speakers included Laura Holgate, a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism and Threat Reduction and U.S. Ambassador to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency; Kenneth N. Luongo, President of the Partnership for Global Security and a former Director of the Department of Energy’s North Korea Task Force and Director of the Office of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation; Jack Spencer, Vice-President of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity; and Tristan Volpe, Nonresident Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. The event was broadcast live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be found here. A summary of the event can be found below.
The United States should make it a priority to maintain an important share in the export market of nuclear technology for energy production, according to multiple experts speaking at the Center for the National Interest. By doing so, they contend that the United States can not only reap economic benefits, but also maintain influence over international nonproliferation norms and regulations and foster a cooperative nexus between security practitioners, climate enthusiasts and the business community.
The United States does not “have the luxury” of thinking about nuclear power as a single-factor issue, Kenneth Luongo, President of the Partnership for Global Security, said. He observed that nuclear power is tied to U.S. strategic geopolitical power, is guided by a poorly structured and opaque security regime and is being affected by several “new realities”—demand for low-carbon emissions, the rise of cyber, artificial intelligence, and non-state actor threats; aggressive, state-backed, international competitors; and new nuclear technologies which do not fit the existing nonproliferation framework.
Proliferation risks can be minimized through non-diplomatic means, such as innovation within the nuclear energy industry, according to Sam Thernstrom, Executive Director of the Energy Innovation Reform Project who moderated the session. Although he acknowledged that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was useful in reducing nuclear risks, Thernstrom raised important questions about whether some efforts to limit proliferation were “driv[ing] customers of new nuclear technologies into the arms of our global competitors” by “imped[ing] access of U.S. innovators to global markets.” If this is the case, he assessed that the longevity of the U.S. nuclear industry is under serious risk, which could seriously undermine the United States’ role in international nuclear nonproliferation and governance.
Disagreeing with Thernstrom, Jack Spencer, Vice-President of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, argued that the NPT “does not exist in a vacuum.” Rather than illustrating problems with the nonproliferation regime, Spencer said, cases like North Korea and Iran are about whether peaceful nations are willing to compel proliferators to discontinue their activities. It is a “bad actor” problem, he added, not a failure of a system that otherwise works. In Spencer’s view, the U.S. interest is in sustaining a competitive marketplace.
Luongo argued that the United States is faced with a choice to “lead or cede,” where the latter choice cedes market share to Russia and China, but the United States is later left with the responsibility and costs of managing the consequences of states which proliferate (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea). He expressed further concern that the United States will lose leverage over nuclear projects and governance when countries purchase nuclear technology from other states, contending that “[the United States] can’t afford a race to the bottom in pursuit of market share” because “high standards are important” for security as well as economic reasons.
However, Tristan Volpe, Nonresident Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, noted that the United States is now seeing a greater proliferation risk from its allies and partners than from its adversaries. Beyond North Korea and Iran, he said, no other U.S. adversary appears to be seeking nuclear weapons. Using the example of Saudi Arabia, he determined that the tools typically used to compel adversaries (coercion and denial) to abide by nonproliferation rules are ill-suited for U.S. allies. Instead, Volpe advised that the United States should offer inducements (security, energy and economic) instead of relying on punishment to deter U.S. allies from developing enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology.
Moreover, Volpe contended that U.S. threats of coercive sanctions on allies are “far less credible” and even inappropriate when an allied state has pursued ENR technology in full cooperation with the IAEA. Instead, he noted that the United States should act early to address risks of allies seeking ENR technology or proliferating, before they have heavily invested in ENR technology. However, he admits that there is an inherent catch-22 since it is difficult to determine whether a country may be a proliferation risk until it has taken a series of concrete steps to acquire the relevant ENR technologies. Additionally, relying on this strategy too heavily can incentivize states to pretend that they will seek ENR technology to try and obtain U.S. concessions, when they originally had no intention to build an indigenous ENR capability. Ambassador Laura Holgate agreed, suggesting that Riyadh’s interest in nuclear power at times seems intended to evoke a “hug” from its U.S. ally.
“We definitely do need a new framework for global nuclear security cooperation, and one in which the U.S. nuclear industry can thrive,” said Holgate, a former U.S. Representative to the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 2016-2017 and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Holgate recognized that government must enlist the private sector’s “active participation” to effectively prevent nuclear weapons proliferation and maintain strong U.S. influence in the global nuclear conversation. She argued that businesses and government should incorporate bilateral cooperation into their modus operandi, thereby fostering virtuous circles where industry recognizes that nuclear security is good for both business and shareholders while government incentivizes industry to reduce proliferation risks. Holgate identified the new series of Generation IV reactors as an opportunity to “bake in” safeguards and virtuous circles into the technology before it is produced.