Site Vogtle Unit 3 and 4, being built by Westinghouse’s main contractor, Toshiba’s business division, near Waynesboro, Georgia, is seen in an aerial photograph taken in February 2017.

Georgia Power | Reuters

Climate change and global security face each other in shaping the future. This is especially evident in this week’s events around nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants generate energy without carbon dioxide emissions, which provides an alternative to fossil fuels that heat the atmosphere.

“Coal and other fossil fuels are stifling humanity,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. “The current global composition of energy resources is disrupted.”

In the same week, the Russian military attacked the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine. One building on the territory of the nuclear power plant caught fire.

“We issue a warning that no country has ever fired at nuclear units other than Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message, according to the translation. “For the first time in our history, in the history of mankind, a terrorist country has returned to nuclear terror.”

Later on Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that the plant continued to operate and there was no release of radioactive materials. However, the security event caused shock around the world.

“It will be a fluctuation,” said Kenneth Luonga, founder of the nonprofit Partnership for Global Security, which specializes in security and energy policy.

Seeing how Ukraine’s nuclear reactors are being attacked is new and particularly alarming for “the majority of the population, who equate nuclear weapons to weapons and danger, as well as to radioactivity and health problems”.

At the same time, countries are realizing that they cannot achieve their climate goals only with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. Luonga says the COP 26 climate conference last year saw “maritime change” in sentiment over nuclear weapons.

China and Russia dominate

China and Russia were the most dominant political powers in nuclear energy.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are about 440 nuclear power reactors in more than 30 countries, which provide about 10% of the world’s electricity. Currently, 55 new reactors are being built in 19 countries, 19 of which are in China. In the US, only two are under implementation.

“China is definitely the most active new nuclear construction program,” said John Kotek of the Institute of Nuclear Energy.

China has “the world’s fastest-growing commercial nuclear power or civilian nuclear power. They are being built at a rate roughly equivalent to what you signed in the U.S. in the ’70s or France in the’ 70s and ’80s,” Kotek said.

Some of China’s focus on building new nuclear power reactors is a response to the rapid rise in energy demand from the rapidly growing middle-class population.

In Russia, there is what Kotek calls a “fairly stable program” of new nuclear facilities. Russia is currently building three new nuclear reactors.

But Russia is also the world’s leading exporter of nuclear technology.

A common Russian reactor design, called the VVER design, which stands for Water-Water Power Reactor in Russian or Water-Water Power Reactor in English, is currently under construction in many countries other than Russia, including Bangladesh, Belarus, India, Iran. , Slovakia and Turkey.

When Russia and China became famous, the United States lost “muscle memory” to build conventional nuclear reactors, Luonga said. Nuclear power gained a bad reputation in the United States after the Tri Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 in Pennsylvania, and more globally after the Chernobyl accident in the Ukrainian Soviet Union in 1986 and at Fukushima in Japan in 2011.

But the flow begins to turn.

The Biden administration’s decision was incorporated into the bipartisan infrastructure law, which was signed in November, and actually represented a large subsidy. The law includes a $ 6 billion program designed to preserve the existing U.S. nuclear reactor fleet.

At the state level, state legislatures across the country now have 75 to 100 bills related to nuclear energy, Kotek said. Ten years ago, the average number of bills related to nuclear energy in state legislatures was a dozen, he said.

“Although, of course, not every bill will be passed, but it shows a real rise in interest in the nuclear power plant,” – said Kotek.

Much of the resurgence of interest in nuclear energy is driven by concerns about climate change and often seems to be greatest in states where the coal economy is closing.

Kote sees this “transition from coal to nuclear” when there is “concern in communities and states that look to the prospect of closing coal plants and want to make the best use of the highly skilled workforce and assets that exist while retiring the coal plant.” he said.

For example, in February West Virginia lifted a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction that had been in effect since 1996.

At the same time, the Russian-Ukrainian war is giving the United States leverage to gain a bigger mark on the world market. Although the war is tragic, “it will lead to additional opportunities for American nuclear companies, as Russia is really disqualifying itself,” Kotek said.

Russia’s dangerous attack on the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine and China’s decision not to vote for an IAEA resolution to prevent such an attack “will damage both countries’ reputations in nuclear exports,” Luonga told CNBC.

“The question is whether the United States and other democracies are moving fast to make those moments and seize the opportunity.”

The US is focused on new nuclear weapons

Building nuclear power plants is expensive and in many places they have become more expensive than other basic energy alternatives such as natural gas.

However, the United States is working hard to become the next generation of nuclear weapons.

“The United States has decided that it does not want to allow Russia and China to dominate the next phase of the nuclear market. And so the United States is pouring billions of dollars – shockingly – billions of dollars into what are called small modular reactors,” Luonga said. In particular, the government is using the Idaho National Laboratory as a testing ground for these reactors.

These smaller, improved reactors are not necessarily new – some technology options have been around since the 1950s – but, according to Luong, they are now experiencing a renaissance.

They can be built from more standard parts, as opposed to custom designs, allowing you to build faster and cheaper.

But while the U.S. is tuning itself to be technologically competitive, they are not prepared in terms of policy, Luonga told CNBC. Conventional reactors use uranium enriched to about 5%. Modern reactors use uranium enriched to about 19%, just below what the IAEA has identified as weapons-grade uranium, which is 20%.

“We have not yet begun to understand what this means in terms of nuclear safety and non-proliferation,” Luonga said.

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