The last six years have been profoundly difficult for the global nuclear industry. Overall demand for nuclear power plants is modest at best, particularly in countries that have serious difficulty financing such megaprojects. The economics of nuclear power have also soured, not only because of the large upfront capital costs and serious cost overruns related to manufacturing and construction in most nuclear power plant projects but also because of diminishing costs for gas-powered and renewable alternatives. These trends exacerbated financial troubles that pushed two major Western nuclear vendors, Westinghouse and Areva, into bankruptcy and dissolution, respectively.

Meanwhile, several European countries are phasing out nuclear power. Japan continues to muddle through in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. In June 2017, the newly elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, announced that his administration would freeze any new construction and begin a slow phaseout of nuclear power, which, until recently, had been touted as a major South Korean industry alongside electronics and automobiles. Even France, where nuclear power has been politically and economically unassailable for the past forty years, is now governed by an administration intent on rolling back nuclear generation in favor of renewables.

These developments further narrow the field of major nuclear power technology suppliers to two: Russia and China. Both states’ industries sustain substantial domestic nuclear power generation programs, possess massive production lines for nuclear power plants, and receive significant state support for their ambitious technology export plans.

What does the overall decline in the appeal of nuclear energy coupled with the shift in market dominance toward China and Russia portend for global nuclear governance and efforts to sustain strong nonproliferation, safety, and security practices? And what approaches might responsible nuclear states pursue to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology in light of changes in the nuclear market?

Implications

China and Russia both derive important benefits from the existing nuclear order, and they stand to gain more influence if their share of the world’s nuclear energy business increases. Neither wishes to see its nuclear technology misused or abused by a client state, resulting in a damaging accident, nuclear terrorism, or the spread of nuclear weapons. Yet there is serious doubt whether either country sufficiently prioritizes the development of safety and security best practices in its cooperation with client states.

For decades, Russia, in partnership with the United States, was a principal architect of the framework of institutions, treaties, and other arrangements that govern cooperation and trade in nuclear technology. In recent years, however, coincident with its growing estrangement from the West, Moscow has become critical of elements of the regime. In some cases, Russia opposed the strengthening of practices it was instrumental in building, such as the state-level concept for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. It also boycotted the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. Meanwhile, Russia’s nuclear power plant export drive is widely acknowledged to be strategic, pursuing projects in states where it also seeks to establish or sustain broader ties, such as Turkey and Egypt. In this sense, nuclear power plant exports serve for Russia as a sort of loss leader that facilitates cementing deeper relations and yields other benefits. In this model, commercial viability and sound risk assessment may be demoted as benchmarks for the terms of the transactions. Given the huge costs involved in these large projects and the concomitant financial burden the model places on Russian state coffers, there is implicit pressure to relax standards and cut corners. Russia has utilized IAEA training in its work with so-called nuclear newcomer countries but explicitly rules out employing its growing influence to strengthen standards and practices—or even to make adoption of existing (and weaker) standards a condition of supply.

China has become more invested in the existing nuclear order since its nuclear power program took flight in recent decades, though there are similar questions about China’s commitment to maintaining high standards as a condition of supply. China had, in the past, criticized contemporary international nuclear rulemaking as discriminatory against less powerful states, but today it tends to defend the status quo more often. Its role in international nuclear governance will grow in the future, fueled by the explosion of development in its domestic nuclear energy program and maturation of a nearly indigenized nuclear supply chain. China is prospecting for nuclear business in markets where it also wields significant political and economic influence—Kenya, for example. China has considerable experience with extractive industry overseas, often building and operating large facilities. But building nuclear power plants in third countries is a fundamentally different matter, even if China were to uphold the highest nuclear safety and security standards. Such nuclear exports raise far more complicated legal and regulatory issues, which are bound to prove especially acute in countries that face significant governance challenges. China is therefore likely to take substantial risks building reactors in nuclear newcomer countries in its effort to compete with Russia in the nuclear business.

These trends raise two serious concerns about future global standards for responsible nuclear use.

First, prioritizing strategic ties amidst downward market pressures indicates that China and Russia are not giving sufficient preference to safety, security, liability, environment, and perhaps even nonproliferation considerations. This is especially concerning when it comes to states building their first commercial nuclear reactors; by definition, they have little experience regulating and operating complex nuclear power stations. In most cases, these states also lack the resources to cope with a nuclear safety incident. Japanese, Russian, and U.S. nuclear officials, with more experience and resources to draw on, struggled to manage the profound consequences of past nuclear accidents in their countries. The consequences in a state without similar resources or experience are likely to be manifestly worse. But the impact and implications would go beyond just the state in question. The susceptibility of the global nuclear industry to post-accident shocks—several European states opted for nuclear phaseout after the Fukushima accident in Japan, for instance—means that an accident involving a Chinese- or Russian-supplied reactor somewhere else in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East could have broader ripple effects on the continued viability of nuclear industry in general, in addition to potential specific transboundary environmental, social, and political consequences.

Second, the growth of Chinese and Russian nuclear market shares, coupled with the slow demise of domestic nuclear industry in other technology-holding states, effectively means a loss of political influence for other states on matters of international nuclear governance. The more their established industries depend upon exports to survive, the more difficult it will be to enforce robust standards for safety, security, and nonproliferation. In the United States, for example, the nuclear industry periodically has argued for relaxing regulations in order to become more competitive in new markets. New vendors seeking to enter the market by exporting small modular reactors are also not immune to these pressures. And many of these vendors lack the knowledge, experience, and resources necessary to address the political, safety, security, and nonproliferation implications of such exports—let alone the clout to influence their potential customers. Unless China and Russia are prepared to take on a leadership role in nuclear governance to defend high standards, a race to the bottom of nuclear regulation seems a likely scenario.

Approaches to Enhanced Nuclear Responsibility

Realistically, contemporary nuclear politics do not favor new global initiatives or constructive policies on nuclear responsibility. But that does not mean that market forces should be allowed to drive down standards. Indeed, responsible nuclear states should aim to level up the playing field by upholding and, where possible, even strengthening practices that support global interests in safety, security, and nonproliferation. These states could develop an approach—winning support from their nuclear industries and ideally in collaboration with Beijing and Moscow—in which prior achievements could augment existing conventions and norms to inform a reframed set of principles for responsible nuclear technology stewardship in the twenty-first century. The elaboration, consolidation, and implementation of such principles through intergovernmental processes, at the IAEA, the Nuclear Energy Agency, the World Nuclear Association, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and other pertinent institutions would aim to enhance the credible use of nuclear energy through a combination of uniform global standards and processes for implementing them. In addition, these principles could be complemented by an effort to develop norms that sharpen the distinction between peaceful nuclear applications and those that serve few legitimate purposes other than nuclear weapons.

Briefly, three such elements could contribute to enhanced nuclear responsibility.

Consolidating the Widely Recognized Existing Benchmarks for Credible Nuclear Power Programs

Taken together, six contemporary conventions and agreements reflect principles of conduct that all internationally respected peaceful nuclear energy programs endorse

  • the Convention on Nuclear Safety (as amended);
  • the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (as amended);
  • the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management;
  • the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage and/or its Vienna/Paris predecessors;
  • the conventions on early notification of nuclear incidents and mutual assistance in such cases; and
  • the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and related IAEA safeguards).

These conventions and agreements were developed independently of each other, but combined reflect basic requirements of safe, secure, and socially responsible peaceful nuclear energy programs. Leading nuclear-technology states could help bolster international confidence in nuclear power by establishing expectations that all states that deploy or seek to deploy nuclear power plants implement all of these conventions. (India, Israel, and Pakistan have selectively acceded to these conventions, apart from the NPT. Until they join the NPT as non–nuclear weapon states in the context of global nuclear disarmament, they should be expected to manage their civilian nuclear programs as responsibly as all others, including the nuclear weapon states.)

Establishing Consistency Between the Production of Fissile Material and Reasonable Civilian Needs

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, sets a standard for its duration that Iran’s fuel-cycle activities not exceed a level “consistent with practical needs.” This logic of commensurability needs a clearer international basis and higher resolution definition in order to minimize risks that Iran (when the JCPOA restrictions begin to phase out) and/or other countries will misuse fuel-cycle capabilities. The production of fissile material that exceeds reasonable civilian purposes is a problem elsewhere in the world (such as Japan), but it presents a vexing diplomatic challenge when dealt with on an ad hoc basis. This issue becomes especially acute when new nuclear energy states enter the market and at the same time also explore associated fuel cycle options. One principle on which a broader norm could be built is contained in INFCIRC/549 on Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium, which calls for adherent states to develop strategies that take into account risks of proliferation and balancing material supply and demand, among other best practices. The problems with appropriate management of supply of enriched uranium are, if anything, even more complicated than plutonium, but a similar principle could apply. A closely related issue is the need to define requirements or minimum credible standards for long-term handling of spent and irradiated nuclear fuel (the United States is hardly a role model on this point).

Articulating a Norm of Self-Restraint on Nuclear Weaponization Research and Development.

Through IAEA safeguards, the international community has an important toolset to verify the peaceful use of nuclear material, as defined by the NPT. But the NPT does not specifically prohibit, and IAEA safeguards do not routinely cover, a host of other activities critical to the development of nuclear weapons. States could thus pursue research and development activities related to nuclear weapons, even if those activities serve few or no other legitimate non–nuclear weapons purposes. For example, states may work on the development of initiation and firing systems that spark a nuclear explosion, on simulating and modeling the design of nuclear warheads or bombs, or, for that matter, on the development of nuclear warheads for missiles.

One innovation of the JCPOA is that it specifies several activities that could be used to design and manufacture nuclear weapons—including modeling nuclear explosions, designing and testing multipoint detonation systems, and acquiring or developing explosively driven neutron sources— and prohibits Iran from conducting them. Similarly, the United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) endorsing the JCPOA calls on Iran to refrain from developing dual-capable missiles for some years. But both the JCPOA and UNSCR are proving contentious and difficult to apply insofar as they do not stipulate who ought to be responsible for implementation and how it ought to be carried out.

Here, too, responsible nuclear states could discuss the identification of activities, including those noted in the JCPOA, that are either uniquely or sufficiently associated with nuclear weapons that their practice should be phased out or, at least, practiced in a manner that reinforces non-weapons uses (for example, purely for basic scientific research).1 Over time, states could introduce such a principle into bilateral peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements.

Conclusion

The elements of this approach constitute a reasonable means to promote practices in a supply market that is likely to be dominated by China and Russia. In particular, there is value in greater collaboration between government and nuclear industry to consolidate existing benchmarks to sustain high standards and best practices. But to truly level up the playing field rather than dilute existing standards to enhance competitiveness, states will have to find common cause with Beijing and Moscow.

Notes

1 The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s paper on a nuclear firewall might serve as a useful starting point for such an exercise.