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Climate Change & Nuclear Risks


Main building of Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station, near Zarechny, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. Beloyarsk has the largest fast breeder reactor (BN-600) of the world and is currently building another one (BN-800).

By Christine Parthemore, Senior Research and Policy Fellow, The Center for Climate and Security

While experts have long spoken of a “nuclear renaissance” in the global energy market, the Paris climate negotiations brought nuclear power to a new prominence. Climate change, regional political balancing, and other drivers have combined to push many countries to pledge increases in nuclear energy capacity in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted in advance of the 2015 climate conference.

Though these national emissions-reduction plans are not yet legally binding in most countries, they are providing a greater level of detail that we normally see on long-term nuclear energy intentions. This, in turn, allows us greater fidelity in mapping the potential spread of the nuclear knowledge, technologies, and products of greatest concern — indispensable knowledge that we can use to minimize risks of the proliferation or terrorist acquisition of nuclear materials.

The scale and speed of some countries’ ambitions have caused perhaps the most concern by those focused on nuclear affairs. China’s plans have been a major focal point for these reasons. The country recently announced plans to build 6-8 new reactors per year through 2020 and to increase production thereafter, becoming the world’s top nuclear energy supplier by 2030.

Less noticed are cases like India’s, whose INDCs not only state the scale of its nuclear energy expansion goals but also provide details that raise deeper security questions. For example, India’s INDC submission specifically calls out fast breeder reactors — of higher concern for their rate of plutonium production — to illustrate the emissions mitigation technologies the country is eyeing. Indeed, press in India reported in early December that the country is planning six additional fast breeder reactors after the prototype that’s currently in the works becomes operational. This is a legitimate cause for concern in light of the “presence of groups interested in and capable of illicitly acquiring nuclear materials,” as well as other factors that recently led the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to rank India as one of the countries of highest risk for theft of nuclear materials.

However, it is worth noting that the nuclear-climate intersection goes beyond power generation. Then-director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei linked these issues eloquently upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for the organization in 2005:

At the IAEA, we work daily on every continent to put nuclear and radiation techniques in the service of humankind. In Vietnam, farmers plant rice with greater nutritional value that was developed with IAEA assistance. Throughout Latin America, nuclear technology is being used to map underground aquifers, so that water supplies can be managed sustainably…In the South Pacific, Japanese scientists are using nuclear techniques to study climate change…These projects, and a thousand others, exemplify the IAEA ideal: Atoms for Peace.

Since that time, the IAEA has continued to elevate public awareness of the nuclear technologies that play a constructive role in assessing and addressing climate change, health threats, and other potentially destabilizing global challenges.

Understanding global trends is central to foreseeing and forestalling security threats. The Paris climate change commitment process has given us new details and a deeper sense of how the nuclear energy future could drive new security challenges if not managed correctly, ranging from regional stability concerns to diversion of nuclear materials. Robust research, dialogue, and tools that track and quantify these changes — and allow us insight if potential security risks emerge as a result — will be all the more important for informing our nonproliferation and nuclear security policies in the years ahead.

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