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Published: October 19, 2009


An Immodest Proposal for the Next Big Fuel

And China is the place to set the international plan in motion. This nation of 1.3 billion people, most of whom are rapidly increasing their energy use, is on course to complete and put on line a new coal-fired plant every week. It is the locale where substituting nuclear power for coal will do the most good most rapidly. China is also an optimal country for initiating large projects. A little autocracy goes a long way when it comes to siting and building nuclear plants. Thanks to its single-party rule and strong interest in centralized, sustainable solutions, the Chinese government can approve and build nuclear plants fairly rapidly, avoiding those American-style delays and cost overruns.

But China cannot take on the nuclear challenge on its own. Much of the technology comes from Japan. China also lacks the requisite nuclear experience. France, however, has abundant experience; nearly 80 percent of its electricity is currently generated from nuclear power. The United States also has a large experience base through corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse, which have long histories with nuclear technology. Further, the U.S. has a vested interest in reducing carbon emissions, since the country produces such a disproportionate share of them.

Concentrating the development of nuclear energy in China, but with international oversight, will have other benefits related to centralization and control. It could reduce competition for a scarce resource — uranium — and thus hold down the price of nuclear fuel. Additionally, almost certainly, it would reduce the danger of proliferation. An international body, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, might function as a watchdog.

China might welcome a position as the world leader in nuclear power production, even if it means receiving greater scrutiny by such a watchdog group. The country already has nuclear weapons and would like to discourage other nations from developing their own. Being a major producer of nuclear energy will help China further integrate its economy into the world economy. Having these two long-standing enemies, Japan and China, involved together in a project of this scale would probably also be a boon to world geopolitics.

Of course, many questions remain. For example, what would the Russians think of such a plan? How would Germany perceive this business opportunity for France? And the issue of waste disposal will not go away — although now it could be addressed at a global scale. There might be some regions of Earth, perhaps Antarctica, that would be seen as safe for storing radioactive waste; it’s also possible that the waste could be compressed and sent into space.

Yet a further problem: What is to keep the Chinese from co-opting the technology for their own competitive advantage? The best answer may be: Let them. There are three reasons for this. First, the concentration of nuclear technology in China will free up resources elsewhere for investments in innovative clean-energy technologies. Second, China’s success in limiting carbon emissions will benefit everyone. But third and most profoundly, if the recent economic collapse has taught us anything, it is that we must write a new chapter in the history of capitalism. We must rethink the merits of “beggar thy neighbor” competition among nations. There is such a thing as the international common good, and this proposal can serve as a proving ground for new kinds of global public–private partnerships.

This proposal is Swiftian, perhaps, because it involves a seemingly unthinkable idea. It would bring together groups that are not typically considered capable of working closely together — the Chinese, French, Japanese, and U.S. governments, plus a variety of corporations and not-for-profit groups — to collaborate without getting bogged down, combining the best aspects of each organization and its mode of governance.

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