Christine Parthemore on Climate One: The Rewards and Risks of Nuclear Power

On April 10, Christine Parthemore, CEO of the the Council on Strategic Risks – the parent organization of the Center for Climate and Security – was interviewed by Climate One on the future of nuclear power. Christine brings a unique security experience to this perennial debate, given both her experience in both the U.S. Department of Defense and academia addressing issues ranging from the security implications of climate change to countering weapons of mass destruction. The main takeaway is that while nuclear power can be a part of the solution to climate change, there are also security risks to be anticipated and addressed. Below is the transcript of the discussion between the host, Greg Dalton, and Christine Parthemore. Click here for the full podcast.

Greg Dalton: Some countries look to nuclear as a promising way to cut carbon emissions and advance technologically. But weak states with nuclear capabilities are grappling with instability brought on by climate change, mass migration and the sudden onset of Covid-19. Could new nuclear technology also bring new risks? 

Christine Parthemore is CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC. She explains how nuclear power is related to national security. 

PROGRAM PART 4 – CHRISTINE PARTHEMORE

Christine Parthemore:  In a wide number of ways.  For one, we’ve used nuclear power in the history of the United States, civil nuclear energy programs as a way to conduct outreach and shape international norms and standards regarding safety and security and nonproliferation.  So from early on for the United States our national security program around the nuclear industry when it was first emerging centered on the United States providing nuclear power technologies and materials and knowledge to states that wanted it for peaceful purposes.  So U.S. leadership broadly in international security affairs, but in the nuclear issues specifically was very tied to the provision of nuclear energy services from our country to others for a long time.  In more recent years that’s changed a lot. 

So one of the issues that we look at out in the security side is that one of the main countries providing at least contracts to develop new nuclear power plants with other countries looking to build out that capacity is Russia.  Our current U.S. national security strategy states very clearly that we’re concerned about the role of Russia going forward, its influence in key regions around the world and what that means for U.S. security interests.  China is newer to the nuclear suppliers market, but they’re looking to make that a big part of their export economy as well.  So it’s certainly in the U.S. national security interest to make sure that countries that have civil nuclear programs for energy purposes or for research or they use radiological materials for medicinal purposes that those activities are safe, the materials are secured and accounted for  and that we’re involved with how international norms and standards evolve and stay strong to make sure that countries that are involved in nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes keep them peaceful and don’t merge those programs into hedging toward nuclear weapons programs.

Greg Dalton:  So nuclear power has been part of global geopolitics in U.S. foreign policy for a long time.  Looking at the Paris climate accord 10 countries explicitly listed nuclear power and their plans to meet their climate.  Ten countries listed nuclear in their plans to meet their Paris commitment some were existing nuclear powers, China, India, Iran, Japan others, Argentina and then there’s another group of companies, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey.  So when you look at more nuclear in a climate destabilized future, how do those two things come together?  Nuclear can be part of the solution, but there also can be risks.

Christine Parthemore:  Certainly.  One other risk that I already add in is that for countries that are talking about expanding their use of nuclear energy for climate change mitigation purposes and to develop low carbon economies that doesn’t mean that some of their neighbors might not trust that those activities are fully peaceful.  So it’s another concern that we have is some countries if you look at the Saudi Arabia, Iran dynamics for example.  Some countries may be worried that those Paris commitments to more nuclear energy are more of what they call climate washing their nuclear programs.  So that’s another concern. 

But we have looked into for the past few years the concern that climate change and its effects when coupled with other socioeconomic and political trends will cause countries that possess either nuclear weapons or nuclear energy or both to become destabilized in all or parts of their countries.  That’s a trend that we’re already seeing as climate and other pressures mount in different countries around the world.  If you add into the mix the need to control nuclear materials and keep a nuclear system safe and secure.  Make sure that no one is accessing nuclear materials that shouldn’t have access to them for example.  Making sure that the facilities and plants are safe and that they’re well secured.  Things like that they take a really strong governance system.  It’s an issue set that we need to be very aware of which requires one of the ways that we’ve been addressing this is bringing together people from this different discipline.  So nuclear experts with climate experts, and making sure they’re talking to each other.

Greg Dalton: Most nuclear power plants around the world are water cooled.  Therefore they’re located on rivers, lakes and oceans.  We know that water supply, water volatility, droughts and floods, there’s a lot of water risk.  So talk about water risk in a climate world and how that can affect the stability of nuclear power plants?

Christine Parthemore:  Sure.  So at the extreme case we have evidence of this with the unfortunate tragedy of the triple disasters that Japan experienced including the tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant there.  That country has been struggling for more than nine years now to handle that.  There was a large inundation of water coupled with many other different factors sort of going exactly wrong.  But it’s a good case where the Japanese were very prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis.  And they had an actually pretty aggressive standard for protecting their power plants and coastal areas from these disasters.  But this disaster the tsunami was just so much worse than even their most aggressive planning standards. 

And I think that shows the mindset that we have to adapt in a world of climate change.  And you see what happened with the reactors there, there are still meltdowns occurring.  They’re still years later trying to adequately assess the status of the melted down fuel and where the fuel resides and then there is water challenges that continue today.  So as they have to continually pump water through the affected nuclear reactors in order to prevent further chain reactions from occurring and keep them cooler.  They have a huge problem with what to do with all that water.

So they’re in a horrible position of having to decide whether to flush some of this water that’s passed through the affected reactors back into the ocean or whether they have to keep storing it on land and trying to treat it over time.  So again we know that climate change is upon us we know how it’s going to go.  There are great assessments of flooding and sea level rise out there.  There’s no reason that we shouldn’t all take responsibility, especially in critical industries like the nuclear sector where things can go very wrong, if they do go wrong, and taking those extra layers of precaution.

Greg Dalton:  We’ve talked earlier in this radio show and podcast about new technologies that don’t use water.  So they’re separated from that water risk.  And that water risk is not just Japan nine years ago.  There’s been examples in New Jersey and Nebraska in this country where the rising Missouri River as well as super storm Sandy impacted nuclear power plants.  Is the industry ready for these kinds of climate risks around the world?

Christine Parthemore:  So I would say no.  Not in general no, some countries have a lot of assistance on this.  And again where the challenges is if we’re addressing reducing these risks from the status of what we know to be the risks today versus what we know the climate risks are that are coming down the pike during the lifetimes of these plants.  We need to be aggressively planning now for those changing environmental conditions as well as security conditions they’re gonna merger on this. 

The threat landscape is not static, just like the climate landscape that we’re dealing with is not static either.  So we need to become more sophisticated about not just again planning for the threats that we know.  Our presence and are normally accounted for in the regulatory system in the licensing systems that exist in countries like ours and others but we should be helping other countries like this to use the forecasting tools that we have available.  To say this is what our climate future and this is what our security future sort of looks like and let’s plan to that standard.

Greg Dalton: You’ve been listening to Climate One, and a discussion about the role of nuclear power in a hot and destabilized world. That was Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks.

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis

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