The Future of Global Nuclear Power Through the Eyes of Young Russian and American Professionals

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Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

As we witness the increasingly detrimental effects of global climate change, the role that nuclear power could play globally to mitigate its effects continues to be debated. The series of articles featured in the Bulletin in December 2016 aired a broad spectrum of opinions, ranging in assessment of the role of nuclear power from insignificant to mandatory. In this series, we present the perspective of a new crop of nuclear professionals who collectively represent two of the world leaders in nuclear power—the United States and Russia.

These young professionals work together to exchange views and ideas as part of the U.S.-Russia Young Professionals Nuclear Forum that we created in May 2016 to encourage dialogue on critical nuclear issues of concern to both countries. As most official avenues of US-Russia cooperation on nuclear issues were being shut down in pace with the deteriorating political relations between Washington and Moscow, our objective was to turn to the younger generation, because those in it will have to live with the consequences of a world in which their countries no longer cooperate to mitigate global nuclear dangers.

In the United States, our efforts are organized within the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, although we reach out to universities and other organizations across the country. In Russia, we were fortunate to find the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), Russia’s flagship research university in nuclear engineering, to be an enthusiastic partner. Its rector, Professor Mikhail Strikhanov, has an unwavering international outlook that stresses the need for cooperation, especially in higher education and research. The young professionals are students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career professionals.

Hecker has previously written in the Bulletin about the remarkable period of post-Cold War nuclear cooperation between Russian and American nuclear weapon scientists and how the termination of that cooperation by our governments threatens our collective security. We viewed engaging young professionals from the two countries as one of the few avenues of continued cooperation. It has the potential of being particularly effective because at the forum meetings, the young Russians and Americans interact in an educational and non-adversarial environment.

The first three forum meetings focused primarily on issues of nuclear non-proliferation and countering nuclear terrorism. They featured exercises in which the young professionals worked in small groups side by side to explore solutions to vexing nuclear problems. One was a simulation conducted at Stanford in May 2018 just a few weeks before the historic Trump-Kim Singapore Summit. The other was an exercise in Moscow in October 2018 to advise their governments on a hypothetical crisis related to the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

At the Moscow forum, we also asked the young professionals to explore what the two countries could do to promote the benefits of nuclear energy around the globe, while cooperating to mitigate the associated risks.

Preparation for the forum included online lectures by senior mentors as well as lectures and discussion sessions in Moscow by both Russian and American specialists. In the nuclear power exercise, we assigned eight key questions to 24 young professionals. We divided them into eight teams, each composed of Russian and American participants. The central question was whether or not an expansion of global nuclear power is necessary to help mitigate the danger of global climate change. Individual groups examined issues of supply and demand around the globe and some of the big challenges posed by an expansion of nuclear power—those of economics, safety and security, potential proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the disposition of nuclear waste.

The young professionals conducted research prior to the meeting, deliberated and debated within their teams during the meeting, and presented their findings to the larger group and the panel of senior mentors at the end of the exercise. During the past six months they have captured the essence of their findings in the eight articles featured in this special presentation in the Bulletin.

Their findings are generally pro-nuclear, which is not surprising considering that most of them have strong educational and research backgrounds in either nuclear technologies or nuclear security. But we found that their views were primarily driven by their serious concerns about the dangers of global climate change and the urgent need to confront these dangers.

Their articles are of interest not so much in that they break new ground in these areas, particularly since many other  established experts have tried to tackle these issues for decades. They are of interest because they represent the views of some of the younger generation of professionals working together across cultural and disciplinary divides. We were struck by the following comment in one of the papers  that reflects on the perceived urgency of the task at hand: “We are the first generation that is experiencing the dramatic effects of global climate change and likely the last that can do something about it to avoid catastrophic consequences for the Earth and its people.”

We also note that the articles uniformly reveal that the young professionals across the board firmly believe that the benefits and risks of expanding nuclear power globally must be pursued and tackled in a concerted effort of major nuclear powers (especially the United States and Russia), other developed nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and all stakeholders. These younger voices stated: “The most important shift necessary to facilitate [nuclear power] expansion is an increase in international cooperation and multilateralization in the form of, for example, international reactor supply contracts, multinational enrichment conglomerates, nondiscriminatory fuel banks, and international waste repositories.”

We believe the readers will find the sentiments and opinions of the young Russian and American professionals interesting and encouraging. We certainly have found them eager and able to work together effectively—a lesson that the more senior professionals and the governments need to relearn.

Editor’s note: The Young Professionals Nuclear Forum cooperation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


Read the articles here: