The Geopolitics of Nuclear Power and Technology

Authors: Nicola De Blasio and Richard Nephew


To a degree unique in science and in energy, nuclear power has been linked to geopolitical issues beyond its control for decades. Matters of safety, waste management, and proliferation are intrinsic to the technology. However, other issues—including the Cold War competition between Western and Eastern blocs for hearts and minds around the world—added to the complexity of the nuclear industry. These issues might have been subsumed for a time with the resolution of the Cold War, but new geopolitical issues—energy security and climate change foremost among them—have also arisen.

The authors believe nuclear power can play a constructive role in addressing the energy needs of the twenty-first century, both in the developed world and in emerging markets. For this to happen, though, policy makers and industry need to grapple with three key questions:

  1. How can policy makers and the public better assess and balance the benefits and costs associated with nuclear power?

  2. If nuclear is to be part of the global energy mix, what is the responsibility of the United States, Western Europe, and Eastern Asian countries, such as Japan and the Republic of Korea, to be part of it? Beyond international institutions, is there particular value in US, European, Japanese, or Korean companies in nuclear commerce in order to ensure the highest standards for safety, nonproliferation, and security remain at the forefront?

  3. How can costs in deployment and research and government funding be managed to ensure adequate private sector investment and participation?

The authors offer three recommendations that can help to address these questions and face the challenges presented to nuclear power today, with an approach to the geopolitical issues around nuclear energy includes the following elements:

  1. A concerted approach to demystify the science around nuclear power and to ensure local communities and the public at large have an appropriate appreciation for the role nuclear energy can play.

  2. A renewed global partnership for managing the risks of proliferation that combines political and technical factors. This should include cooperation among governments to reduce the risk of nuclear reactors serving as Trojan horses for proliferation (either directly or as a result of their fuel needs), and it should include improved export controls on a global level.

  3. Government support for nuclear research and development, both through investment vehicles and private public partnerships. It must also incentivize the safe, economic, and reliable operation of the current feet of nuclear reactors. This should include mechanisms to streamline the R&D process, which has become saturated with designs that have no chance of entering production and sap millions in resources that might better be applied in bringing new reactor designs to market.

Nuclear power might yet fulfill the sense of promise that pervaded the 1950s and 1960s, when it was considered the energy source of the future, but a combination of policy decisions would be necessary to achieve this vision. To date, geopolitical competition, economic factors, and safety concerns have limited the reach of nuclear power. New geopolitical forces, such as the challenges of development and climate change, could reshape the international playing field for nuclear energy’s benefit. Policy makers around the world will need to decide whether they wish to invest in such an effort.

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For Academic Citation: De Blasio, Nicola, and Richard Nephew (2017). “The Geopolitics of Nuclear Power and Technology,” Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, March 2017.