The Vogtle Unit 3 and 4, built by main contractor Westinghouse, a Toshiba business unit near Waynesboro, Georgia, can be seen in an aerial photo taken in February 2017.

Georgia Power | Reuters

Climate change and global security are pushing each other to shape the future. This is especially evident in this week’s events around nuclear energy.

Nuclear power plants generate carbon-free energy, providing an alternative to fossil fuels that warm the atmosphere.

“Coal and other fossil fuels are suffocating humanity,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. “The current global energy mix is ​​broken.”

That same week, Russian forces attacked the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine. A building in the nuclear power plant complex is on fire.

“We issue a warning that no country has ever fired on nuclear units other than Russia,” Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky said in a video statement, according to a translation. “For the first time in our history, in the history of mankind, the terrorist country has returned to nuclear terror.

Later on Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that the nuclear power plant was still operating and that no radioactive material had been released. Still, the security event sent out waves of fear around the world.

“There will be hesitation,” said Kenneth Luongo, founder of the non-profit Global Security Partnership, which works on security and energy policy.

The view of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors being attacked is new and particularly worrying for “a large part of the population who equate nuclear weapons with weapons and danger, and with radioactivity and health concerns”.

At the same time, nations are beginning to realize that they cannot achieve their climate goals with renewables alone, such as wind and solar energy. Luongo says there was a “maritime change” in nuclear sentiment at the COP 26 climate conference last year.

China and Russia dominate

China and Russia are the most dominant political forces in nuclear energy.

There are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in more than 30 countries, supplying about 10% of the world’s electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Currently, 55 new reactors are being built in 19 countries, 19 of which are in China. The United States has only two in progress.

“Certainly China has the most active program for new nuclear construction,” said John Kotek of the Institute of Nuclear Energy.

China has “the fastest-growing commercial nuclear or civilian nuclear energy sector in the world. They are being built at a rate roughly equivalent to what you signed in the United States in the 1970s or France in the 1970s and 1980s.” they, “Kotek said.

Part of China’s focus on building new nuclear power reactors is in response to the rapid increase in energy demand from the rapidly growing middle-class population.

The Russians have what Kotek calls a “fairly stable program” for rebuilding nuclear weapons. Three new nuclear reactors are currently being built in Russia.

But Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of nuclear technology.

A joint Russian reactor project called VVER Design, which means a water-water reactor in Russian or a water-water reactor in English, is currently under construction in many countries besides Russia, including Bangladesh, Belarus, India, Iran, Slovakia and Turkey.

As Russia and China rose to prominence, the United States lost the “muscle memory” to build conventional nuclear reactors, Luongo said. Nuclear power gained a bad reputation in the United States after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania and more globally after the Chernobyl accident in the Ukrainian Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima in Japan in 2011.

But the tide is starting to turn.

The Biden administration’s decision was included in the Two-Party Infrastructure Act, which was signed in November and was effectively a large subsidy. The bill includes a $ 6 billion program designed to keep the existing US fleet of nuclear reactors.

At the state level, there are currently between 75 and 100 bills related to nuclear energy in state legislatures across the country, Kotek said. A decade ago, the average number of nuclear-related bills in state legislatures was a dozen, he said.

“While certainly not every bill will be passed, this is indicative of a real increase in interest in nuclear energy,” Kotek said.

Much of the resurgence of interest in nuclear energy is due to fears of climate change and often seems to be strongest in countries where coal economies are closing.

Kotek sees this “transition from coal to nuclear energy”, where there are concerns in communities and states that look to the prospect of closing coal-fired power plants and want to make the best use of the highly skilled workforce and assets that exist in this coal retirement. headquarters, “he said.

For example, in February, West Virginia lifted its 1996 moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants.

At the same time, the war between Russia and Ukraine is giving the United States leverage to make a bigger impression on the global market. Although the war is tragic, “it will lead to more opportunities for American nuclear companies, as Russia is indeed disqualifying,” Kotek said.

Russia’s dangerous attack on the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine and China’s decision not to vote in favor of the IAEA resolution to prevent such an attack “will reflect the two countries’ reputation for exporting nuclear atoms,” Luongo told CNBC.

“The question is whether the United States and other democracies are moving fast to make those points and seize the opportunity.”

The United States is focusing on new nuclear energy

Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and in many places have become more expensive than other basic energy alternatives such as natural gas.

However, the United States is pushing hard for what could become the next generation of nuclear weapons.

“The United States has decided that it does not want to allow Russia and China to dominate the next phase of the nuclear market. And so the United States is pouring billions of dollars – shockingly – billions of dollars into the development of what are called small modular reactors, “Luongo said. In particular, the government is using the Idaho National Laboratory as a testing ground for these reactors.

These smaller, more advanced reactors aren’t necessarily new – some variants of the technology have been around since the 1950s – but they’re having a renaissance now, according to Luongo.

They can be built with more standard parts, as opposed to custom construction, which allows for faster and cheaper construction.

But while the United States is set to be technologically competitive, it is not politically prepared, Luongo told CNBC. Conventional reactors use uranium enriched to about 5%. Advanced reactors use uranium enriched to about 19%, just below what the IAEA defines as uranium weapons, which is 20%.

“In fact, we have not begun to scratch the surface of what this means in terms of nuclear security and non-proliferation,” Luongo said.