Market competition, along with a trifecta of major nuclear incidents — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima — have posed barriers to the growth and public acceptance of nuclear power. Liberalization of electricity energy markets has made nuclear energy less cost-effective than other energy sources, including gas and renewables.
The staggering initial capital cost requirements of nuclear new build have led to new financing models. China and Russia are now offering package deals, which are attractive in emerging countries that do not have the financing or expertise for nuclear power. The build-own-operate model allows for unique opportunities and strange bedfellows. These complex financing and ownership arrangements are beyond the scope of this paper, but they introduce troubling arrangements where Russia, for example, could be responsible for nuclear security in Turkey. These factors have had consequences for nuclear industry around the world, with some countries faring better than others. China has negotiated nuclear deals with various countries, including the United Kingdom, Iran, Argentina, and Saudi Arabia, and is planning to build 20 new reactors at home.1 The U.S. nuclear industry, in comparison, is struggling to continue as a competitive supplier, while domestically trying to stay afloat: About 10 nuclear power plants are scheduled to close prematurely as of 2017.
But nuclear energy is entering a new chapter that could change the game for all industry players. With concerns about a warming planet, many countries are beginning to reconsider nuclear as a “clean” energy source. In addition, the promise of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other next-generation reactor designs could be an entry point for potential suppliers. The prospect of new builds on the horizon also translates into job creation for many communities. These factors could engender a renewed public response that could potentially reverse decades of negative attitudes towards nuclear energy, and advance countries’ strategic engagement through new nuclear deals.
While there are exciting new opportunities, there are also unique challenges: The security landscape continues to change in unprecedented ways as the public grows wary of cyber vulnerabilities and the potential for insider threats against critical infrastructures, including nuclear. Recent attempts to wage cyber-attacks on nuclear facilities could be, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano stated last year, the “tip of the iceberg” — the world could potentially see more devious hacks as state and non-state actors hone their abilities to develop more sophisticated attack vectors.4 Thus, nuclear security as a concept must be recognized and addressed just as nuclear safety has been for the industry to ensure a favorable future.
Governments, civil society, and nuclear industry leaders all expressed commitments to nuclear security during four Nuclear Security Summits (NSSs) (2010–2016) amid much international press. But now that the Summits are over and the world is no longer watching, attention to nuclear security has waned. While the last Summit in April 2016 tasked five international organizations — the United Nations, the IAEA, International Police Organization (INTERPOL), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (Global Partnership) — to maintain the integrity of the “nuclear security architecture,” it is not clear how outstanding commitments will translate to measurable and impactful actions.
While the Summit process yielded concrete commitments from participating countries, there are still various political and bureaucratic hurdles to improved security. As it stands, little agreement or understanding exists as to how the five organizations will coordinate and implement the Summit commitments within a reasonable timeframe. And while industry participants expressed support towards the Summit process by hosting their own side meetings and proclaiming their own security commitments, it is unclear how this will be reflected in their practices. Although much was accomplished during the Summits, international institutions, governments, industry, and civil society must continue to work together to address outstanding Summit commitments, and preserve gains already achieved.
This paper proposes several recommendations to bring all relevant stakeholders together to revitalize attention around nuclear security:
- To continue the public focus on nuclear security, states party to the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM/A) should call for regular reviews to ensure all parties to the Convention are implementing it, including the newly added fundamental principles.
- To facilitate assistance efforts and ease states’ reporting processes, countries willing to take leadership roles should consider new ways of streamlining reporting, starting off with a trial process to include the CPPNM/A’s fundamental principles as part of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 voluntary reporting.
- The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should consider how they can better complement the work being done by governments and industry, potentially by promoting transparency and accountability and by identifying and evaluating new avenues to increase nuclear security.
- Nuclear industry representatives involved in the Summit process, possibly through industry groups such as the newly-formed Nuclear Industry Steering Group for Security (NISGS), should explore specific ways they can help implement the NSS action plans for the five international institutions. For instance, industry groups could:
- Serve as the official hub for international information sharing and collaboration with industry on security issues,
- Develop an industry framework for strong governance on nuclear security, and
- Promote industry discussions with the five organizations on emerging nuclear technologies/approaches.
Pursuing some of these actions can help continue the post-Summit dialogue without having to rely on the next incarnation of ministerial-level meetings to take stock of progress. Governments need to spearhead these efforts, as meaningful changes in policy and regulation must be driven from the top. NGOs can advocate for more meaningful industry input into the process, so that perspectives from the operational-level can be taken into consideration. Industry, perhaps with the help of civil society, can also push forward with voluntary commitments — by subscribing to a corporate governance framework, peer reviews, and other transparency measures — to demonstrate that it is willing to do its share in upholding nuclear security.
Overall, new mechanisms outside an official high-level convening must be developed to take pragmatic steps to ensure a strong and stable nuclear future as prospects for the nuclear industry expand over the long term.