Climate Change’s Nuclear Warning

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New America / Sergey Kamshylin on Shutterstock
April 5, 2022

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entering its second month, the future of U.S.-Russia relations looks grim. Yet the need to collaborate to address shared threats grows more urgent every day. Climate change — and the other existential threats facing the world today — won’t wait for a more favorable geopolitical climate.

The prognosis for our warming world gets worse every day, as it becomes less and less likely that the most powerful countries will hit emissions reduction targets. Meanwhile, there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons in arsenals around the world, many kept on high alert, all of which are capable of unleashing a level of environmental and human destruction that could be even worse than the worst effects of climate change. Both of these threats will require collaboration between the United States and Russia, which together possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and control nearly 20 percent of the world’s land.

The history of U.S.-Russia arms control successes suggests what could be possible. The 1993 United States–Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, also known as “Megatons to Megawatts,” was originally proposed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Neff in an editorial for the New York Times. The agreement allowed Russia to sell the United States low-enriched uranium that had been downblended from highly enriched uranium produced from dismantled nuclear weapons, and allowed the United States to use Russia’s technology to downblend its own highly enriched uranium. The program continued for nearly two decades, until 2013. Nuclear material covered by the program provided up to 10 percent of the electricity produced in the United States over the program’s two decades, about half of the electricity produced by U.S. nuclear plants.

The weapons covered by the original program had been eliminated from the arsenal as a result of earlier arms control treaties. A return to arms-control negotiations between the two countries certainly feels far off. But the large-scale arms-control reductions of the late Soviet period that provided the pretext for the treaty happened relatively quickly. Ambitious, rigorous thinking across policy issue areas is an asset when the stakes are high, even when the prospects for constructive change are few.

A revival of this concept could be structured similarly to its predecessor, with the United States buying low-enriched uranium from Russia after future nuclear disarmament treaties — perhaps covering both countries’ intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forces, which have been identified by experts as strategically unnecessary and a source of increased nuclear risk. The fuel, in turn, could be used in U.S. nuclear reactors as part of a comprehensive strategy for reducing emissions not only from energy production, but from other sectors that contribute significantly to climate change, such as transportation and manufacturing.

Nuclear energy remains a polarizing issue. The shadow of high-profile nuclear energy accidents remains long in the public consciousness, and the lack of understanding around nuclear technology as well as the nuclear energy industry’s reputation for dysfunction both contribute to a deep-seated skepticism of nuclear energy, particularly among those working hardest to imagine a future beyond climate change. Russian attacks on nuclear facilities in Ukraine have capitalized on this fear, especially acute in a country that experienced one of the highest-profile nuclear accidents in history.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes a role for nuclear energy in all of the climate mitigation scenarios it has modeled; in most of them, that role is increased. Scenarios modeling a transition to 100 percent renewable energy have been criticized for overstating the capacity of hydropower to fill the gaps in renewables generation. Relying on nuclear energy from our deadliest weapons to ease that transition could mitigate some of the drawbacks of both nuclear power as it exists today and a rapid transition to renewables. And with more countries interested in achieving energy independence from Russia, the motivation is there to seek out alternatives.

Many things stand in the way of a world powered by the very weapons that once stood poised to destroy it. Russia’s decision to wage this heartbreaking war will have consequences not only for the millions in Ukraine whose lives have been altered irrevocably, but also for a world waiting for its most powerful countries to address the most pressing threats that face us all. The promise, and the challenge, of turning swords into ploughshares is still with us as we imagine what a safer world, protected from the worst effects of climate change, might look like.

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