Game Changers for Nuclear Energy


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Kate Marvel and Michael M. May
Global Nuclear Future

Present-day forecasts for nuclear power, based on the accepted no-surprise scenario, appear likely to repeat the mistakes of past planning. In particular, there is no accepted, integrated framework to incorporate and mitigate game changers and their consequences. Some of these consequences may be limited: the inability of companies to foresee and capitalize on emerging technologies may affect them negatively, but is hardly uncommon or disastrous. Some potential consequences, however, could be severe—and could have ramifications far beyond the area of nuclear power. After all, nuclear power is unique in the problems it poses: worst-case scenarios involving the theft of weapons-grade material or a severe accident at a nuclear plant would arguably be among the most catastrophic to arise anywhere in the energy sector. It is therefore imperative to devise effective strategies for thinking about game changers. How might this be accomplished, and what is missing from current plans?

First, an overemphasis on rare “black swans” has prevented planners from appreciating the full range of game changers. Even plans that explicitly account for sudden surprises suffer from an incomplete understanding of what it means for an event or development to “change the game.” As we have shown, game changers are not simply unanticipated low-probability events, but can also be ongoing, evolutionary changes or high-probability “normal accidents.” Undoubtedly, the ascendancy of China in the nuclear industry, the emergence of new nuclear markets, and large-scale action on climate change may have serious and unanticipated consequences for nuclear power. These evolutionary changes may prove to change the game in far more unexpected and radical ways than sudden, surprising shocks.

Second, as we have shown, game changers are possible in almost all aspects of the nuclear power field, from technological innovations in the fuel cycle to regulation of greenhouse gases to changes in politics among and within the great powers. It is a fruitless exercise to predict the exact events or innovations that will shape the future of the field. Instead, it is useful to identify the outstanding problems that future innovations might address. Advances in reactor technology, for example, are difficult to predict, but in order to represent an improvement on current technology they must make nuclear power safer, less expensive, more proliferation-resistant, or must reduce the volume or change the composition of spent fuel. We have identified the shortcomings of present-day technology that impede progress toward these goals rather than assess the suitability of various technologies on the horizon.

Finally, the existence of many actors with many agendas should not obscure the fact that there are many outcomes that are universally positive or negative. A nuclear accident, for example, benefits no one, and most countries have a strong incentive to prevent fissile material falling into the hands of terrorist groups. Therefore, it is possible to identify universal public goods and shared goals and to work to coordinate national and industry strategies to realize them. Even when strong disagreements exist—on the structure of a future nonproliferation regime, for example—it is helpful to identify the exact areas of conflict, and to highlight areas of agreement. Most states agree on the need to curb proliferation but disagree on how to balance this with the right to peaceful use of nuclear power. Considering the consequences of game changers such as this one can help provide a useful way to proceed in present discussions of nuclear energy and clarify common future goals.