On Tuesday, CNAS released its new joint CNAS-German Marshal Fund report on Global Swing States: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and the Future of International Order, co-authored by CNAS’s Richard Fontaine and GMF’s Daniel Kliman. The report lays out a new framework for how the United States should engage these pivotal powers in order to bolster the current international order, including around issues like maritime security and global maritime governance – an area we follow closely in our natural security work.
CNAS and GMF co-sponsored a launch event on Tuesday featuring Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Robert Hormats, pictured above.
Photo: Courtesy of Sara Conneighton and CNAS.
Last week the Department of Energy (DOE) announced its decision to award the first company to receive government funding in support of commercializing Small Modular Reactors (SMR), a new generation of nuclear power plants. Funds were awarded to a consortium of companies responding to a funding announcement in March 2012; the consortium is led by Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in conjunction with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel. The Department of Energy established the Small Modular Reactor Licensing Technical Support Program to provide federal support of up to $450 million to expedite the licensing process of SMRs Originally, two projects would receive funding; so far only one has, leaving other initiatives such as Westinghouse, NuScale and the Holtec HI-SMUR out of luck for now.
The SMR initiative is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to have low-carbon nuclear energy play an important part of America’s energy future. SMRs are defined as having power outputs of up to 300 megawatts of electricity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. They are touted for their compact scalable designs that offer a host of safety, construction and economic benefits. According to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, SMRs have the potential to create new export and job opportunities for many Americans as the world is increasingly demanding nuclear energy to fulfill its energy needs, despite recent retreat from nuclear power by some countries. Developing countries that do not have the capacity or expertise are looking for more modular and cost effective power sources and SMRs may be an increasingly attractive option.
SMRs also present a unique opportunity for the United States to restore leadership in the global nuclear energy market. As U.S. SMR businesses grow the share of the market, the United States is positioned to play a leading role in future negotiations on nuclear reprocessing and spent fuel. More countries will be eager to reinstate 1-2-3 negotiations and the United States will have subsequently more leverage in these discussions. U.S. leadership in the nuclear energy markets can go a long way in ensuring safeguards can go in place of nuclear stockpiles which are critical to non-proliferation goals.
While SMRs could usher in a new wave of nuclear renaissance, many hurdles still lie ahead. First, the Nuclear Regulation Commission (NRC) still has to approve all of the design certifications before any nuclear reactor becomes operational. The NRC hasn’t issued a license for a full-scale nuclear reactor since 1976, which is in part a reason the U.S. influence in the nuclear energy market has eroded. The NRC has more experience and familiarity with large light water reactors and has thus taken a more cautious role in studying the safety of SMRs. This presents a problem for manufacturers because the uncertainties of NRC regulations make it so they won’t invest in SMR production. Whether the Small Modular Reactor Program established by the DOE will be able to overcome NRC licensing costs is still unclear as negotiations for the exact cost of its partnership with B&W is still being negotiated.
Some have argued that the Department of Defense (DOD) would be a unique testing ground for an SMR demonstration. While this might be true, there does not appear to be enough political will for using the DOD as a site for energy experimentation. A DOD SMR program might also entail high political costs due to the larger defense cut negotiations that are taking place in Congress as part of the fiscal cliff.
The bottom line: the administration’s recent moves are a sign that SMRs are poised to play a large role in any nuclear energy future.
Territorial claims over the South China Sea took an interesting turn last week.
According to a report from Reuters, China’s new passports have raised the eyebrows of several South China Sea claimants: the country’s microchip-equipped passports contain a map of China’s claim over the South China Sea – represented by the country’s disputed nine-dash line.
The Philippines and Vietnam have condemned the Chinese passports, worrying that accepting the documents could legitimize China’s diplomatic claim over the sea. According to Reuters, “The map means countries disputing the Chinese claims will have to stamp microchip-equipped passports of countless visitors, in effect acquiescing to the Chinese point of view.”
"The Philippines strongly protests the inclusion of the nine-dash lines in the e-passport as such image covers an area that is clearly part of the Philippines' territory and maritime domain," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said last week, according to Reuters.
China’s Foreign Ministry responded to questions about the passports, stating, "The passports' maps with their outlines of China are not targeting a specific country. China is willing to actively communicate with the relevant countries and promote the healthy development of Sino-foreign personnel exchanges.”
Annie Snider of Greenwire confirmed on Monday that after more than three years the CIA has closed its Center for Climate Change and National Security, the office responsible for the intelligence agency’s analysis of the national security implications of climate change.
According to the report, the center was closed due to continuing pressure from congressional representatives and dwindling internal support for the work. “Especially since Panetta left, there wasn't a lot of love for this at the CIA," one former defense official told Greenwire.
“The exact timing of the closure and the reasons behind it are not clear. Those close to the center speculate that the move may have been intended to pre-empt cuts from Congress. The total U.S. intelligence budget has declined for the past two years, dipping to $75.4 billion for fiscal 2012 after peaking at $80.1 billion in fiscal 2010,” Greenwire reported.
Nevertheless, the agency has a continued stake in assessing the impact of climate change on U.S. national security interests and will continue the work “under other auspices,” the report said.
On Sunday, the World Bank released a study – Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4⁰C Warmer World Must Be Avoided – that says the world is on a path to increase the average global temperature by 4⁰C by end of the century– that is double what scientists say is safe in order to avoid the most catastrophic climate-related events.
“The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people,” the World Bank described in a press released on Sunday.
“A 4 degree warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2 degrees,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim stated in a press release. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”
Sea-level rise is among the many consequences described in the report. According to the study’s climate projections, .5 meter to 1 meter sea-level rise is likely by 2100, with higher levels in specific regions. Present-day sea-level dynamic topography could put developing countries in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast and East Asia at most risk, areas that already experience above-average sea level rise. While there is no definitive link “between present-day dynamic topography and the future sea-level rise under climate warming,” those regions are experiencing greater coastal and urban migrations, which could make them more vulnerable to future sea-level rise. “Highly vulnerable cities are to be found in Mozambique, Madagascar, Mexico, Venezuela, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam,” the study found.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta traveled to the Asia Pacific this week ahead of President Obama, who will travel to the region tomorrow to visit Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. On Thursday, Secretary Panetta and Thai Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat reaffirmed the U.S.-Thai military alliance. “Today the minister and I moved this alliance into the 21st Century by signing a joint vision statement that will help pave the way for even stronger military to military ties as we adapt to the shared threats and challenges that we will face together in this region and in the future,” Panetta said. “As we focus on these areas of cooperation, I want to convey that the United States remains committed to helping the Thai military further develop its already impressive capabilities so that it can assume even greater security responsibilities in this region, particularly in maritime security and in humanitarian relief and in peacekeeping operations.”
Photo: Secretary Panetta toured the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Thursday. Courtesy of Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo and the Department of Defense.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) published its new World Energy Outlook on Monday, projecting the United States to become the world’s largest oil producer as early as 2020, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia for the top spot. According to the IEA’s analysis, the United States may even become a net exporter of oil by 2035. The American energy revolution is driven in part by technological developments that have bolstered shale gas and tight oil production, as well as decreased demand for oil due to higher fuel efficiency standards in U.S. vehicles, according to the IEA.
The analysis should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is difficult to project as far forward as 2035 with any meaningful amount of certainty. For example, some of the tight oil projects in the United States may depend on a global price of $70 a barrel in order to remain economically viable. Some analysts are projecting prices to fall as low as $50 a barrel, which could drive developers away from investing in projects that require $70 a barrel to breakeven, upsetting some of the oil production estimates.
Nevertheless, it is possible to make some reasonable assumptions about what the American energy revolution could mean for U.S. policymakers charged with navigating this complex and ever-changing landscape. Here are a couple of things to watch for, in no particular order:
The pace of tight oil production will continue to be dynamic. U.S. tight oil production may speed up or slow down depending on the U.S. energy market. There is some reason to believe that tight oil production is moving faster in the United States than some expected because of depressed natural gas prices. Low natural gas prices have contributed to poor returns on investment for some shale gas producers, with some producers choosing to develop tight oil deposits instead of expanding shale gas production in order to earn a profit. If natural gas prices rebound in the near term though, tight oil production could slow down as development shifts back to a more profitable natural gas sector.
New York National Guard soldiers and airmen continue to play an important role in helping victims in the northeast recover in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a reminder that the National Guard is critical to homeland resilience. In this photo, members of the New York National Guard distribute fuel to areas suffering from shortages. Elsewhere, the Department of Defense set up mobile fuel stations to provide free gas (10-gallon limit per person) to individuals in the New York metropolitan area.
Photo: Courtesy of SFC Jon Soucy and the U.S. Army.
The ballots have been cast, the votes are in and the pundits are exhausted. While the world consumes the election results, we’ll take a break from our normal post today to highlight some natural security news items that may have been missed in the wake of the presidential election.
Bloomberg News reported this morning that the Department of Defense (DOD) is taking a more active role in assessing its supply chain vulnerability for heavy rare earth elements, those rare earths that are less abundant than others in the 17-element rare earths group. According to the report, DOD may be setting a demand signal to help foster a non-Chinese supply of rare earths, particularly from mines in North America. China, today, produces approximately 95 percent of rare earth minerals, but only has 50 percent of known global reserves.
According to Reuters, Laos has started construction on a $3.5 billion hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River that could have cascading effects on downstream countries like Vietnam that rely on the river for fish and fresh water. Laos hopes to become the hydroelectric battery of Southeast Asia, exporting hydropower to countries like Thailand.
CNBC reports that Iran has increased its naval activity in the Gulf of Persia near the Strait of Hormuz in order to strengthen its authority over disputed islands in the gulf that both Iran and the UAE have made claims to.
Geothermal energy systems may present climate mitigate and adaptation opportunities to building developers, according to The New York Times. Indeed, geothermal energy may be an increasingly attractive option for developers in areas prone to storms that can devastate above-ground infrastructure. These systems offer a way to harness the earth’s energy to heat and cool buildings relying on less-vulnerable underground infrastructure while reducing the building’s greenhouse gas footprint.
More than 2.5 million are still without power in the northeast, just one of the many enduring impacts of Hurricane Sandy.
On Thursday, the Department of Defense launched a “significant airlift event” to assist in recovery efforts, including dispatching airlift equipment from the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command to deliver electric utility vehicles to the distressed region. The Air Mobility Command deployed 12 C-17 Globemasters and five C-5 Galaxy aircraft to transport personnel and equipment from Southern California Edison Utility Company to New York City, according to American Forces Press Service.
The Department of Defense also dispatched about 60 fuel trucks carrying 200,000 gallons of fuel to the northeast to assist first responders that are also vulnerable to the fuel shortages plaguing recovery efforts in the region.
Photo: U.S. Air Force crew offload Southern California Edison power repair equipment from a C-5 Galaxy on Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, NY on November 1, 2012. Courtesy of Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo and the U.S. Army.