Report: National Security Risks Grow with Demand for Nuclear Energy

Risks associated with nuclear energy such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear terrorism, sabotage, coercion and military operations can all be expected to grow as countries seek to implement their new nuclear energy objectives, according to a report by George Washington University’s Sharon Squassoni.

The aim of 22 countries to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050, announced on the margins of the international climate change meeting COP-28, was adopted with little thought to the national security implications. The promotion of small modular reactors specifically tailored to developing countries will heighten risks, the report asserts

The report authored by GW professor Sharon Squassoni, “New Nuclear Energy: Assessing the National Security Risks,” comes as drone strikes against Ukrainian nuclear power plants highlight nuclear reactor vulnerabilities. Other risks will accompany nuclear growth as renewed interest in nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sparks programs across the globe, according to the report.

An attempt to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers using nuclear energy could worsen the risk of proliferation by motivating fuel cycle independence, the report states.

Many SMRs are still in development, with few restrictions on designs. Reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium or plutonium will increase risks of proliferation and terrorism because those materials are weapons usable, according to the report.

The report also finds: reactors designed to include lifetime cores will build up plutonium over time; fast reactor designs that require reprocessing, especially continuous recycling of fuel, could ultimately confer latent nuclear weapons capabilities to many more states; the kinds of reactors now under consideration do nothing to reduce known risks, and some pose heightened risks; there appears to be no attempt to forge agreement among suppliers or governments to restrict reactor choices that pose greater proliferation risks.

If the mass production of small modular reactors lowers barriers to entry into nuclear energy, there will be many more states deploying nuclear power reactors, and Russian and Chinese programs to promote nuclear energy target many of those states, according to the report.