New Nuclear Energy: Assessing the National Security Risks

WASHINGTON, DC – April 23, 2024

According to a new report published by George Washington University’s (GWU) Sharon Squassoni, proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear terrorism, sabotage, coercion and military operations – these risks associated with nuclear energy can all be expected to grow as countries seek to implement their new nuclear energy objectives,


The climate crisis has renewed interest in nuclear energy as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2023, the United States and 21 other countries pledged to triple nuclear energy by 2050. Lost in the noise about meeting net zero goals are the national security implications of attempting such an enormous expansion of nuclear energy.

The nuclear energy future that is being proposed now – small, flexible reactors distributed everywhere for many uses besides electricity – will not reduce, but will add to the national security risks that are unique to nuclear energy. On top of this, cooperation among key states essential to minimize the safety, security and proliferation risks of nuclear energy is at an all-time low.

Proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism are the top two security risks associated with nuclear energy.

To limit those risks, nuclear energy has required a network of agreements, treaties and voluntary understandings. Even if that network were perfect – and we know it is not by the examples of Iran and North Korea – the war in Ukraine has reminded us of the danger that nuclear power plants present when governance crumbles and the risks of sabotage, coercion, or even weaponization skyrocket. To date, the concentration of nuclear power in fewer than three dozen countries worldwide has also helped limit these risks. Yet a highly nuclearized world will present more targets across the globe and some of these will be in countries with fragile governance and limited experience and resources. Proposals to widen applications of nuclear energy beyond electricity will require fuels and technologies that require reprocessing -- a sensitive fuel cycle technology that increases proliferation risks. Absent a concerted effort to restrict sensitive fuel cycle technologies, proliferation risks will inevitably rise. The call to triple nuclear energy coincides with the disintegration of cooperation, the unraveling of norms and the loss of credibility of international institutions that are crucial to the safe and secure operation of nuclear power. The United States should avoid turning its nuclear energy export competition with Russia and China into great power competition. Rather, it should seek to reinvigorate a shared understanding of the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation with those key countries.

In particular, the United States should convene an international study on the national security risks of small modular reactor designs.

U.S. government promotion of nuclear power needs to be informed by objective, technology- based assessments as well as geopolitical analysis. The U.S. State Department should commission a new International Security Advisory Board study on how the national security risks posed by nuclear energy have changed over the last two decades and broaden its focus to include not just proliferation but also the prospects for nuclear terrorism, sabotage, coercion and weaponization of power plants.

For itself and other countries, U.S. climate objectives should not favor specific technologies but focus on the most efficient and most feasible measures to achieve net zero in the shortest amount of time.

Above all, the United States needs to weigh nuclear solutions to climate change against other low-carbon options that pose fewer national security risks and may be more resilient to disruption. If the international security environment further degrades under the stresses of extreme climate, it may become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to carve out “safe zones” for nuclear power plants.


The climate crisis has generated strong interest in nuclear energy as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The scope and urgency of the challenge is enormous – to eliminate the use of fossil fuel across multiple sectors, especially electricity, within two decades. The United States, along with twenty-one other countries, called for a tripling of nuclear energy capacity by 2050 on the margins of the COP-28 climate summit in December 2023. This is an ambitious goal, particularly considering that most countries do not have nuclear power plants and two-thirds of those that do (31 countries plus Taiwan) tend to operate just one or two reactors. Why? Cost has been a big reason for many countries, but so are concerns about safety and what to do with radioactive waste. Keeping reactors safe and secure poses added challenges. In 2011, the tsunami that devastated Japan demonstrated the high environmental and political costs when severe weather events damage nuclear power reactors. More than ten years after the crisis, most of Japan’s nuclear reactors still sit idle.

And in 2022, the risks to nuclear power plants suddenly widened when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Its occupation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and ongoing occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site prompted experts to consider the unthinkable: operating nuclear power reactors safely and securely in zones of conflict.

Nonetheless, the nuclear industry and governments are eager to make nuclear energy relevant again after decades of stagnation.

An effort to make nuclear energy more affordable, safe and flexible, and thus more attractive to a broader range of uses and users, has centered on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Few SMRs are actually operating to date, but more than 80 designs have been proposed worldwide. In a bid to “reinvent nuclear energy,” designers have proposed a host of new applications of nuclear energy including heating, desalination, industrial manufacturing processes and hydrogen production, for both densely populated cities and off-grid, remote locations. The United States and China are even considering so-called nuclear batteries and microreactors for military forces and bases.

The U.S. State Department is promoting SMRs as:

• Requiring little land and scalable to meet energy needs • Designed to incorporate advanced safety, security and nonproliferation features • Requiring less capital investment • Flexible in their siting • Designed for multiple uses (including district and process heat, clean hydrogen, and other industrial applications)

The landscape of SMRs, for the moment, is largely fictional. With so few SMRs operating, it is hard to tell whether their reality will meet expectations. Although they are marketed as new and advanced, SMRs so far feature few true innovations among the scores of designs. Quite a few are old wine in new bottles. And while they may be designed to reduce vulnerabilities, some feature technologies that will increase proliferation risks. Most importantly, promoting nuclear power for countries with significant governance challenges could present new national security risks. This analysis traces the historical development of small modular reactors, discusses the current trends in designs and applications, and describes where such reactors might be deployed. It analyzes a range of national security risks posed by the potential widespread deployment of nuclear power that SMRs may exacerbate.

The report concludes that as the nuclear energy industry has sought to reinvent itself, it has not only failed to solve old problems, but created new ones.

Read ful Report

One Princeton University analysis assessed

that with a learning rate of 10% (assuming this rate kicks in once 10 plants have been manufactured), 700 plants would need to be produced before the benefits of serial production outweigh the penalties suffered from the diseconomy of scale.42 To put this in perspective, this is roughly the total number of commercial nuclear power reactors ever built. If each plant produced 200 MWe, 700 plants would only produce 140 GWe (about one-third the current global capacity. If the learning rate in manufacturing is smaller, many more plants would need to be built to achieve the break- even point with larger reactors. With a 5% learning curve, “the costs of large and small units cross only after 60,000 small units have been produced.”