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Is New Nuclear Energy Creating Greater National Security Risks?

Proliferation and nuclear terrorism are top two national security risks, but sabotage, coercion and military operations pose other risks, according to new GWU report. 

Risks associated with nuclear energy — 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 new report from George Washington University’s (GWU) Sharon Squassoni.

The aim of 24 countries to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050, announced on the margins of COP-28, was adopted with little thought to the national security implications. The promotion of small modular reactors (SMRs)– specifically tailored to developing countries – will heighten, not diminish risks, according to the report.

nuclear energy
(Photo: Adobe Stock / Vlastimil Šesták)

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

A professor at GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs, Squassoni now researches risk reduction from nuclear energy and nuclear weapons after serving in the State Department, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Congressional Research Service.

Proliferation and nuclear terrorism are the top two national security risks, but sabotage, coercion and military operations pose other risks. An attempt to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers — a national security risk itself — using nuclear energy could worsen the risk of proliferation by motivating fuel cycle independence.

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. 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. In sum, 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.

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