No one can think of or plan for every game changer. Even if it were possible to
list all separate events and developments that could affect nuclear power in the
future, the combination of them would lead to unforeseeable situations. Nevertheless,
the survey of the previous sections will, we hope, narrow the range of “unknown
unknowns.” It casts light on the causes and limitations of current planning
Given this necessarily partial survey, the question remains: what can be done about
game changers? Four main factors complicate the ability to answer this question:
- There is considerable uncertainty and, in many cases, ignorance about both the probability
and the consequences that can be assigned to the individual game changers considered.
Game changers are not necessarily “black swans,” or events that are
assigned low probability based on a known distribution. Often, their likelihood
is unknown because the probability distribution is so uncertain. It is not possible,
after all, to construct a mathematical measure of terrorist motivations, or to quantify
the probability of a future event that focuses popular attention on nuclear power.
The normal approach of assessing risk and then determining how much to spend hedging
against that risk is in many (perhaps most) cases not available or necessarily applicable.
- There is also considerable uncertainty about the timescale on which the
game changers could occur. Some potential game changers stem from ongoing events
(climate change, increased export capabilities from China and other Asian countries).
The unknown game changers in those cases are the reactions to those events: their
form, timescale, and magnitude. Other potential game changers may or may not occur
in the distant future; viable commercial fusion is one such example. Still others
could occur at any time, such as the success of small modular reactors or a terrorist
- The greatest complication for analysis comes from the question of whose strategy
will capture the most interest and command the most influence. If we define
strategy as a combination of plans and decisions that can lead or is leading to
a series of concerted actions, a number of the major actors in the nuclear energy
field—governments and private firms—seem to have strategies.
In the following subsection, we will characterize some of those strategies.
- If a study of game changers is to produce actionable policy recommendations,
it is important to define the desired outcome. The strategies of individual
actors are designed to achieve differing, and sometimes conflicting, goals. Some
game changers—an accident or attack, for example—will have universal
negative consequences, but many will benefit some actors at the expense of
others. Therefore, it is necessary to identify issues of common interest and promote
those strategies that best deal with the game changers in those areas.
Having looked at nuclear energy around the world and at the global and local factors
that could change prospects for nuclear energy as a whole, one may ask whether an
analysis such as this one leads to a global strategy. If so, is there an actor that
can carry it out? We will consider those two questions at the end of this section.
Strategies of Individual Actors
Our survey of national programs shows some definite strategies
for development of the nuclear energy industry in various countries. China, South
Korea, France, Russia, and to some degree, Japan have committed to major buildup
and export programs to help support and make large domestic programs more profitable.
The United States remains very much in the export business, but the lack of both
a U.S.-only reactor builder and a generally agreed-upon national policy for nuclear
power has prevented a clear strategy from emerging. India is committed to a large
increase in nuclear power as well as other forms of power. Other states have announced
that they are either continuing or reconsidering their policies.
How do these state strategies deal with the possible game changers out-lined in
this paper? In the following section, we argue that certain game changers would
be either desirable or very undesirable for all actors in the nuclear game and examine
how the strategies of states can prevent or bring about these events.
Preventing Attacks and Accidents. Ensuring reactor safety and keeping nuclear
material out of the hands of terrorists are universal goals; accidents or attacks
can have only negative consequences by any metric. National strategies for dealing
with possible game-changing events stemming from terrorism, accidents, and diversion
from nuclear reactors are agreed in principle if not always carried out in practice.
To varying degrees, most countries cooperate in international attempts to prevent
nuclear terrorism and nuclear trafficking. There is also international cooperation
on improving safety through better reactor design and operational procedures and
operator training. These are avowed goals of all national strategies. Implementation
is checkered, and it is difficult to assess the extent to which those goals
are translated into effective practice in some countries. Similarly, agreement on
better safeguards through putting the IAEA Additional Protocol into force is a work
in progress, despite the fact that this is an avowed goal in most national strategies.
Controlling the Spread of Sensitive Nuclear Material. There is no agreement
yet on limiting the spread of sensitive facilities to discourage nuclear weapons
proliferation. With the exception of a few suspected proliferators, most actors
in the nuclear power arena have an interest in limiting the spread of sensitive
nuclear material. However, the difficulty inherent in balancing the right
to nuclear power technology within the parameters of the nonproliferation regime
has led to wide disagreements on how best to control fissile material. It
can be argued that because such proliferation has not proven to be a game changer
for nuclear power, agreement on such limits has no place in a strategy to deal with
game changers in nuclear power. But that argument is seldom explicitly made, and
is perhaps shortsighted. The spread of enrichment or reprocessing nuclear facilities
could lead to more latent nuclear-armed states: states that could fairly quickly
acquire nuclear weapons, perhaps on a timescale as short as months. That development,
coupled with the entry of new exporters into the market, could make for a very different
marketplace. Optimistically, it could lead to new and more broadly accepted agreements
on safeguarding nuclear power; pessimistically, it could lead to fragmentation of
the market along political lines or, worse, to a marketplace in which effective
steps are no longer taken to limit the dangers of nuclear weapons.
Safer, More Secure Reactors. Among states using nuclear power, there is general
agreement about the desirability of safe and secure nuclear facilities. The implementing
tools (for example, the World Association of Nuclear Operators standards setting,
the adoption of standards concerning safe design and siting by the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission and other such regulators, and, to different degrees, the
various IAEA national agreements) can be viewed as adding up to a strategy, albeit
an evolving one necessarily subject to national variations.
Beyond these steps, technological developments that render nuclear facilities safer
and more proliferation-resistant or that reduce waste are in everyone’s interest.
Strategies to deal with technological game changers consist mainly of R&D by
private entities with government support, at paces ranging from accelerated to somnolent.
The disparity in national R&D strategies could in time lead to major new actors
in the nuclear market, with China and India particularly active. Historically, new
technologies have taken decades to penetrate the electricity generation and transmission
markets. R&D investments are made largely by the state in China, India, and
Russia, while in France R&D is shared between the public and private sectors.
In the United States and some other Western countries, investing in such developments
as small modular reactors, laser enrichment, and other innovations is mainly the
province of industries and utilities.
In addition, two major changes in the nuclear fuel cycle are currently being studied
by governments: the thorium-based fuel cycle in India and the final disposal
site for spent fuel or parts of it in the United States and elsewhere. If it can
be economically implemented, the thorium-based fuel cycle could make India’s
nuclear program independent of external uranium suppliers and could also broaden
the appeal of its exports. The U.S. program to find a new disposal site stems
from a domestic political standoff and reﬂects the lack of a generally understood
and supported strategy for nuclear power in the United States.
Preventing or Mitigating Climate Change. The reaction of state governments
to climate change is variable and generally quite slow. Most industrialized states
are reconsidering their domestic energy mix in light of climate change, with differing
results. Investments in efficiency and conservation vary from country to country.
Thus, there is no global agreement or strategy on emissions, although there may
be international agreement on limiting the use of some of the more deleterious climate
change agents, such as HFCs, where commercial opposition is less strong.42 There has been a general move toward greater
use of renewables, but their higher cost at a time of recession and perceived high
government indebtedness is limiting these moves in some countries. At most, ongoing
and planned actions will decrease the rate of growth of greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere, but they will not limit the anticipated warming to some predictable
value, let alone reverse it. It is difficult to see how this pace of change,
if continued, can amount to a game changer for nuclear power—at least not
until the consequences of climate change become sufficiently obvious and damaging
to support a global consensus on a remedial strategy.
Besides governments, industries and utilities also have strategies, which may generally
be classified as “minimax strategies”: that is, strategies whose
dominant objective is to avoid worst possible outcomes, namely, bankruptcy. Nuclear
enterprises today fall into two camps: those that can rely on enough government
support or sponsorship to prevent bankruptcy and those that cannot. The former category
has shifted the worst risk to government, while the latter category, which includes
most U.S. utilities and some others, faces an uncertain financial and regulatory
environment. This is especially true with regard to future externality pricing of
emissions; as a result, investors are reluctant to commit to financing expensive
new power plants. This reluctance applies (to a greater or lesser degree) to all
but the most essential investments in the electricity sector. Anything that would
reduce investor uncertainty and make realistic risk assessments possible could be
a game changer for nuclear firms, in particular, and the electricity sector,
in general, as well as for the country in which they operate. Pending such an eventuality,
minimax strategies are likely to dominate plans in the private sector.
The brief survey we have just laid out illustrates the areas in
which goals are shared between many actors, making a global strategy possible, at
least in principle. Such a strategy should address universal common goods, including
security and the global environment. Technological and local economic opportunities
and risks are more effectively addressed by the private sector and individual governments,
but a global strategy would provide for the transfer of innovations that make nuclear
power safer and reduce the risk of accident or diversion.
In brief, avoiding accidents and terrorism is generally agreed to be a common good,
and the elements of a common strategy are in place, if not always effectively implemented.
As noted above, states and localities vary in their approaches to the global environment,
particularly where climate change is concerned; despite much negotiating, we are
still short of a global approach to such problems. Avoiding nuclear weapons proliferation
is also considered a global common good by the vast majority of states, but the
steps to implement a common strategy, such as limiting the spread of enrichment
and reprocessing facilities and accepting more intrusive safeguards, are not generally
agreed upon. To obtain agreement among the states involved in nuclear power use
or trade, a common strategy will have to provide for continued competition in the
provision of internationally traded nuclear supplies, such as enrichment services
or uranium ore. It must also provide some safeguards against politically based interference
with international nuclear trade.
Economics plays an ambiguous role in the potential spread of sensitive facilities.
The very large enrichment and reprocessing plants needed to provide economically
for a ﬂeet of power reactors require multibillion-dollar investments and
the development of advanced technological capabilities in areas as varied as metallurgy
and remote operations. As long as both buyers and sellers of enrichment and reprocessing
services have access to a competitive international market free of political restrictions,
so that they can buy enriched or reprocessed fuel at market prices, it may be some
time before the enrichment and reprocessing capacities of the major nuclear power
users are matched by any significant number of new national efforts. On the
other hand, the enrichment and reprocessing requirements for even a few power reactors
far exceed what is needed to provide materials for a few nuclear weapons per year.
States that wish to have a latent nuclear weapons capability do not need to make
the large investments in enrichment or reprocessing required for an economical civilian
The United States and states that share its priorities with regard to avoiding nuclear
weapons proliferation and safeguarding civilian nuclear operations face a problem
in dealing with potential proliferators. To the extent that the United States and
allies limit international access to nuclear services on grounds of proliferation
risk, they also motivate the spread of sensitive facilities, which even on small
scales can provide a state with at least a latent nuclear weapon capability. In
the past, the United States and other states interested in limiting nuclear weapons
proliferation held enough of a monopoly on the needed materials and technologies
so that supply constraints were partially effective in delaying or preventing weapon
proliferation. This near-monopoly is decreasing due to both the entry of new suppliers
that do not or may not share the
U.S. priorities and the wider availability of the needed technologies. Even a poor,
isolated state such as North Korea has succeeded in making enough plutonium for
several nuclear weapons and, more recently, in building what appears to technically
trained observers to be a modern enrichment facility.43
The strategies proposed to deal with this problem range from continuing
attempts encouraging suppliers to agree on limiting or conditioning supplies, despite
probable growing ineffectiveness, to trying to enlist more cooperation by leading
a move to universal nuclear disarmament. It is not clear that any of these strategies
will be effective. It is also not clear whether success or failure in dealing with
the problem of weapons proliferation will affect the future of nuclear power.