21st Century Power for 21st Century Security

Although nuclear power can bolster global security by mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, it poses unique risks that require proactive management. Civilian nuclear materials and technology can in some cases be diverted to produce nuclear weapons, generally with considerable effort and processing. Meanwhile, nuclear facilities and supply chains can be targets for non-state actors, as are all energy supply systems. Managing both non-proliferation and global security are thus key imperatives for global governments and industry.

With many existing and newcomer countries interested in nuclear energy for its economic and climate benefits, proactive leadership on security issues is essential. In designing Generation IV reactors, nuclear companies are incorporating features to both reduce proliferation risks and increase nuclear security.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Nuclear non-proliferation principles form the core of the international governance framework for nuclear technology. With a basis in President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, international trade in nuclear technologies has supported the global economy and enhanced diplomatic relationships. With the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has unique powers to impose safeguards for civil nuclear technology, the world has largely avoided proliferation from civilian nuclear sectors.

The next generation of nuclear power can continue to meet President Eisenhower’s mission by providing technologies that feature key non-proliferation features. Although new technologies can support this goal, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons requires strong global governance. Advanced reactors can help to reduce proliferation risk both through technological innovation and by restoring the U.S. role in international nuclear energy markets, serving as a foundation for an “Atoms for Peace 2.0” program.

Key technological innovations include:

  • Safeguards Compatibility: Safeguards measures help the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detect host state diversion and undeclared production of nuclear materials for weapons use. Advanced reactors can contribute to a more efficient use of safeguards resources by incorporating “safeguards-by-design” principles, enabling IAEA to maintain and improve safeguards even as nuclear energy scales to meet climate needs.
  • Advanced Fuels: Some advanced reactors use fuel forms that make separation of weapons material even more challenging than existing types. TRISO fuel, for example, used in some advanced reactors, is difficult to separate into its component parts and would not be a likely target for proliferation. Some reactors can even reduce government fissile material stockpiles by consuming plutonium or highly enriched uranium down-blended from weapons, similar to the Megatons to Megawatts program. Some reactor designs also reduce the fissile material available in spent fuels.
  • Reduced Fuel Access: Many advanced reactors have longer refueling cycles than today’s reactors, which are typically on 18-24 month cycles. Each time the reactor is refueled, there is some vulnerability to diversion of fuel, so fewer refueling outages (every seven to ten years, for example) provide fewer such opportunities. In some cases, reactor designs feature a ‘sealed core’ that is simply replaced every ten years; making it possible to avoid any fuel-handling in the host country.
  • Reduced Enrichment Requirements: Some advanced reactors reduce the need for uranium enrichment or reprocessing, which are the steps with the greatest proliferation risk, by using unenriched uranium, spent nuclear fuel, or thorium. Some are designed to require no reprocessing, rely primarily on depleted uranium for fuel (with some low enriched uranium for startup), and eliminate the need for enrichment entirely once the fleet is in operation.
  • Verification Innovations: Beyond nuclear technologies, new monitoring technologies offer enhanced methods to monitor and verify safeguards compliance. Satellite monitoring of facilities and artificial intelligence increase the capabilities of IAEA and national governments to detect any diversion of material.

All of these technological advances can be useful in the effort to reduce proliferation risk, but the benefits of creating robust international nuclear trade may yield much larger benefits. The United States and Europe were the great champions for the security architecture designed to prevent nuclear proliferation. Today however, both are waning forces in the global nuclear energy order.

New technologies being deployed in these regions offer opportunities to reverse this trend and enduring trade in advanced reactors provides the geostrategic influence to promote peaceful use of nuclear power globally. The United States has the most attractive advanced technology under development, and when commercialized, it can restore the U.S. role in global markets.

Maintaining Nuclear Security

Nuclear facilities and supply chains are potential targets for non-state actors wishing to obtain nuclear materials, cause radiological accidents, or spark terror. Governments and industry take the responsibility to protect against these threats through many security measures. Secure design, monitoring, enforcement, and post-9/11 counterterrorism have all been effective in mitigating threats.

Other protective measures, such as physical security, are addressed by today’s nuclear facilities using a hardened containment structure, guns, guards, and gates. Advanced reactors use similar measures but in some cases they use novel approaches like siting the reactor underground, or on a floating platform to further protect against external hazards.

As with safeguards, artificial intelligence and other 21st century technologies increase the capability of nuclear installations to monitor their premises and maintain security.

The United States has been a leader in global nuclear security. Following the emergence of transnational terrorism and concerns about radiological weapons, it led efforts to secure highly enriched uranium stocks at research reactors around the world. The United States continues to share best practices and work with foreign partners to address threats to all parts of the nuclear supply chain. A strong nuclear export market can help support and expand this leadership.

Fusion Technologies and Global Security

Nuclear fusion technologies offer the potential for abundant, clean power with limited proliferation and security risks.

In terms of proliferation, fusion does not require the use or enrichment of nuclear materials suitable for fission weapons production. Fusion reactors do still require IAEA safeguards as they could in principle be used to breed fissile materials.

Fusion also has security benefits as fusion reactors do not present attractive targets. Damage to fusion reactors are unlikely to cause large off-site releases of radiation. The primary radioactive material in fusion reactors is tritium. Since most tritium is produced and recycled within the reactor, tritium does not make up a significant portion of the supply chain.

Advanced Nuclear Enables Global Leadership

Real security challenges exist with civilian nuclear energy, and those must be proactively addressed. But those challenges have proved manageable in the past, promise to be aided by innovation, and are outweighed by the enormous benefits that global clean power has in addressing climate change. It is also important to note that the United States does not face a choice between having and not having a global nuclear energy presence. Rather, we face the reality of a global nuclear energy trade and the decision to regain or to continue to surrender U.S. leadership and influence. The latter has unquestionable geopolitical and global security advantages.