The Russian invasion of sovereign Ukraine, together with the Chinese military buildup and threats against Taiwan, seem to herald the emergence of a new tripolar world order and a paradigm shift from great power competition to the confrontation of the great powers. And despite the apparent concerns raised by President Xi during his recent meeting with President Putin in Uzbekistan over the war in Ukraine, the meeting confirmed the continued alliance of these authoritarian states against the United States and NATO. . These are dangerous times, and concerns have grown not only about the potential for escalation of military conflict, but also about energy security and the vulnerability and high prices of energy supplies.
On May 2, G7 leaders declared their commitment to: (1) “phasing out our dependence on Russian energy”; (2) work with partners to “ensure a stable and sustainable global energy supply and affordable prices for consumers”; and (3) accelerate “the reduction of global dependence on fossil fuels and our transition to clean energy in line with our climate goals.”
These commitments – informed by high global energy prices, OPEC+’s decision to cut oil production, European concerns about tight energy supplies this winter, the broader energy security environment and concerns pervasive climates – have underpinned a renewed interest in the potential of nuclear power to help meet them. U.S. leadership in the development of nuclear energy in close cooperation with Western allies will be essential to enhancing global energy security and addressing the international nuclear energy market and related military and economic competition from Russia and China.
Geopolitics of Energy and Great Power Relations
Energy is an important aspect of an overall assessment of the resources, capabilities and international influence of these three nuclear powers. The United States is an energy superpower, having transformed its position from a net importer of oil and gas into a net exporter of oil, gas and coal. Meanwhile, Russia has huge fossil fuel resources; it was the largest exporter of oil, gas and coal to Europe, representing in 2021 30% and 38% of European imports of crude oil and petroleum products, 54% of its imports of natural gas and 50% of its coal imports.
Unlike the United States and Russia, in 2021 China was the world’s largest importer of oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal. As Europe reduced its dependence on Russian oil and gas (EU gas imports from Russia fell to around 7.5% of the total in October) and continued to diversify through to measures such as increasing imports of LNG from the United States, China has increased its imports of Russian Oil and Gas. Russia was China’s second largest oil supplier in 2021, just behind Saudi Arabia. Despite its growing dependence on fossil fuel imports, China has continued its efforts to develop renewable energy and is the largest producer of solar and wind power. It is also the largest exporter of renewable technologies, with solar photovoltaic panel exports doubling to $25.9 billion in the first half of 2022 and wind turbine exports jumping $2 billion in 2021. to reach $7.2 billion. This position and countries’ reliance on China, especially for solar PV and critical minerals, pose their own energy security challenges.
The role of nuclear energy
Russia and China are strongly committed to nuclear energy and are investing both in new power plants and in the research, development and demonstration of advanced nuclear systems. Nuclear accounts for about 19% of Russia’s electricity generation, and Russia, thanks to its substantial public funding, has been the largest exporter of nuclear reactors to the world market, launching major projects in Turkey, India , Bangladesh, China, Iran, Egypt, Belarus and Hungary. It remains to be seen how the economic impact of the war in Ukraine will affect both Russia’s ability to finance and implement these projects as well as countries’ receptivity to future nuclear cooperation with Russia.
Nuclear power’s contribution to electricity generation is lower in China at 5% of the total, but China has overtaken France as the second largest nuclear producer in absolute terms and has the most plants under construction – twenty . It has built two new Hualong One HPR-1000 units in Pakistan and plans to finance similar units in Argentina. Security concerns led Finland to cancel its VVER-1200 project with Russia, and Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania to exclude Russian and Chinese companies from new nuclear project opportunities, even though the Hungarian Nuclear Energy Regular in August 2022 approved the license for the construction of the two Paks 2 units with Russia.
The United States remained the world’s largest nuclear power producer and, despite shutdowns, was able to slightly increase its total installed capacity to 95,492 megawatts (MW) by the end of 2021. Nuclear power generation has provided 18.6% of the US total. electricity production in 2021 and about 48% of carbon-free production. Recent U.S. Federal and State Changes in Policy and Law; increased congressional funding (i.e. $36 billion in nuclear production tax credits and investment in inflation reduction and bipartisan infrastructure bills); and a greater receptivity to nuclear energy have helped to prevent the closure of some plants and to strengthen support for the development of new advanced reactors.
The increased international interest in nuclear power is evident in the two major third-generation systems (i.e. the US-made AP-1000, the South Korean APR-1400, the European EPR, the Russian VVER-1200 and the Hualong One HPR-1000) and in small modular (SMR) and micronuclear (MNR) reactors for civil and military applications. These applications include powering submarines and aircraft carriers, remote bases, mini-grids, directed energy weapons, space vehicles and outposts.
The United States and its Western allies Russia and China are all engaged in the development of different types of SMR. Russia has deployed two KLT-40S designed for an icebreaker on a ship docked at Chukotka in the Arctic and built four RITM-200M floating reactors for a copper mining complex in the Arctic; China has built the first high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) and has a small 100 MW ACP-100 SMR under construction at Changjiang Nuclear Power Plant on Hainan Island; and the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom support more than a dozen major private efforts, often with partners from Japan and South Korea, to demonstrate advanced SMR light water reactors, of HTGR, molten salt and sodium cooled systems, and rapid systems breeder designs. Some of these projects will likely be operational by 2030 and companies are looking to domestic and export markets and developing agreements with other governments (e.g. Romanian company Nuclearelectrica) and foreign industrial partners (e.g. , the Polish mining company KGHM Polska Miedź SA) units.
U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Energy Technology Competition
In this context of growing tensions and clashes between great powers, the race is on to market the new generation of SMRs and MNRs for civilian and military use. After the Arab oil embargo and oil price shocks in the 1970s, there was a drive to build nuclear power plants in the United States and other Western countries. With current energy security and climate concerns and the recent decision by OPEC+ to cut oil production, there is an urgent need for the United States and its allies to usher in a new wave of nuclear power plant construction and to lead the competition to build and demonstrate the viability of these new nuclear technologies.
One of the main challenges is realizing the economies of scale and competitiveness that have been achieved by solar PV and wind over the past decade and gaining broad social acceptance. Another is to maintain U.S. and Western leadership in shaping international regulatory frameworks to accommodate and ensure the safety and security of these new technologies. The United States and its European and Asian allies must move quickly beyond research, development, and demonstration efforts toward effective manufacturing, funding, and implementation strategies to lead this global effort and successfully confront the emerging competition from China and Russia.
Dr. Robert F. Ichord, Jr. is a nonresident Principal Investigator at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.
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