Is the Nuclear Solution to Global Warming Safe?

Challenging the established focus on renewable resources, environmental protection discourse has welcomed the nuclear industry and its expansion as valuable candidates in the fight against carbon emissions.

Partanen and Korhonen legitimise the concretisation of a nuclear solution claiming that renewables and energy conservation tools are insufficient for achieving remarkable results. While providing solution to the problem of environmental security , a nuclear energy expansion heightens the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s verification system remains the primary shield against this risk. However, its budgetary limitations hinder its preparedness and adequacy to cope with a large-scale nuclear expansion while continuing to effectively fulfil its role in non-proliferation efforts.

The nuclear industry has recently experienced a transition from a control-focused discourse, based on fear and limitations, to a more science-centred one, opening up to the nuclear potential. Moving the focus from risk to climate opportunity, projects like the Harmony Programme and scholars such as Knapp et al. attempted to quantify the necessary increase in energy production to achieve a substantial reduction in carbon emissions. However, a sense of partial neglect surrounds the field of security and particularly that of proliferation risk. While a genuine interest in nuclear energy is not to be excluded, the danger of programme diversion towards military use remains a possibility. Particularly salient in determining the IAEA’s capability to face the next step are the strength of international powers and the use of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) in relation to the available budget.

The agency’s safeguards system remains largely dependent on individual states, making cooperation results pivotal in ensuring the effectiveness ofthe system at all stages. Given the efforts to uphold cooperation and to improve from its few failures, the system in place appears functional and efficient. In an expansion scenario, however, the creation of a more interconnected network based on stronger international powers would foster peaceful relations, diminishing grounds for dispute. For instance, an international licensing mandate for power plant construction would respect the wider community’s rights and ensure safety. An incorporated system, included in the IAEA’s mandate, would prepare the agency to face problems linked to plants’ construction and geographical spread, which includes less-stable regions. Overall, recent initiatives undertaken by the agency, such as the newly established nuclear fuel bank, and its future outlook represent promising signs for a more internationally connected IAEA.

The collection and evaluation of safeguards-relevant information represents a pivotal process in the verification cycle. The continuous comparison between received reports and self-collected data allowed the confirmation of the consistency of its parties’ declarations, avoiding issues of correctness and completeness. Adding OSINT to the equation resulted in a stronger assessment, providing “much contextual information and [revealing] strong indicators regarding a state’s nuclear trajectory”. Commercial satellite imagery, in particular, has proven valuable in this task. In a nuclear expansion, OSINT would lower the cost of information acquisition while offering an invaluable monitoring and off-site verification opportunity, allowing effective control despite the workload increase. Nonetheless, OSINT does come at a cost. The volume of available information is continuously increasing, while technological evolution never stops. To detect and analyse relevant data, therefore, more experts and resources are needed.

Strengthening the IAEA’s powers for an interconnected international network and increasing the resources supporting the use of OSINT would undoubtedly both facilitate and address security risks of the advocated nuclear expansion. Both measures would lead to IAEA’s resource optimisation, lowering the expected workload through preventing the rise of disputes and offering more economic means of information gathering. While the beneficial outcomes of the measures are clear, the way to implement them appears arduous due to the budgetary situation. Facing the current expansion, the budget granted to the agency fails to grow proportionally to the increasing demands imposed on the Safeguards Department. A hypothetical large-scale expansion to fight global warming is likely to overwhelm the agency’s capacities, trying its resilience until the breaking point. The 2003 increase in budget agreed after more than 15 years with a zero real growth budget was not able to support the agency nor to assure a stable future. Considering the poor likelihood for IAEA’s regular budget to grow in the near future, even just to meet the current demands, applying modernising measures seems unlikely.

Notwithstanding the tangible potential for future advances in both inter-state relations and OSINT tools, which would support and sustain the nuclear solution to global warming, the limited and static budget of the agency distances these modernisation projects from their actualisation. Thus, it is unlikely that the IAEA would be able to handle a further, even larger, expansion without suffering dangerous repercussions on security standards.


Eleonora Colzani is an MA candidate at King’s College London.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Civaux Nuclear Power Plant in France


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