"Atoms for Peace" 3-cent U.S. stamp presentation with President Eisenhower in 1955 (public domain) superimposed on 'Nuclear Weapons' (Britannica). Collage by IDN. - Photo: 2024

Revival of the Cold War and Decarbonization of the Economy

By Leonam dos Santos Guimarâes*

RIO DE JANEIRO | 31 March 2024 (IDN)—The wars in Ukraine and Gaza can be seen as manifestations of intensified geopolitical tensions that resemble the Cold War period, although the contexts and circumstances are different.

During the Cold War, the world was divided into two main blocs, led by the United States and the Soviet Union. These blocs engaged in ideological, political, and military competition that rarely resulted in direct confrontations but often manifested itself in proxy conflicts, arms races, and constant geopolitical tension.

Although specific in their details and causes, the situations in Ukraine and Gaza reflect some of the power and influence dynamics that characterized that period, including great power rivalry, proxy conflicts, and concerns about regional security and the expansion of influence.

The war in Ukraine, particularly Russia’s intervention and annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by the conflict in eastern Ukraine and escalation in 2022, is often cited as an example of Russian attempts to reassert its sphere of influence in areas it considers historically or strategically significant.

Broader competition between Russia and the West (NATO)

This conflict is emblematic of a broader competition between Russia and the West, particularly NATO and the European Union, reminiscent of Cold War rivalry in terms of efforts to expand or limit spheres of influence.

The conflict in Gaza, involving Israel and Palestinian groups such as Hamas, is strikingly different in nature, as it is deeply rooted in long-standing territorial disputes, sovereignty and human rights issues.

However, tensions in Gaza could be exacerbated by the influence of external powers, including support or opposition from regional and global powers. This conflict may also reflect Cold War dynamics regarding how external powers can influence or become involved in regional conflicts to advance their own strategic interests.

Both conflicts contribute to a climate of heightened global tension, reminiscent of the Cold War, in several ways, such as great power rivalry, proxy conflicts, arms race, military security, and ideological and political divisions.

As in the Cold War, the current international situation is marked by great power rivalry, particularly between Russia and Western countries, with China also playing an increasingly significant role. Just as the US and USSR often engaged in indirect conflicts during the Cold War, today, we see great powers supporting opposing sides in regional conflicts, such as in Ukraine and Gaza. Concern about military security and the potential escalation of conflicts, including the use of advanced and nuclear weapons, reflects another similarity to the Cold War. Although ideological divisions are not as pronounced as during the Cold War, significant differences in governance, human rights, and world order still influence international relations.

Therefore, although the specific contexts and issues at play in the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are unique, they contribute to a global landscape of geopolitical tensions that have some parallels with the Cold War era. Managing these tensions and searching for diplomatic solutions are fundamental to avoiding escalating conflicts and promoting global stability, preventing what looks like a revival of the Cold War.

Potential impact on the peaceful use of nuclear energy

This perception that the world may be experiencing a revival of the Cold War stems particularly from recent statements by global leaders who raise significant concerns about various aspects of global geopolitics and their implications. One of these concerns is the potential impact on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and, by extension, global decarbonization and climate change mitigation initiatives.

Nuclear power has been a controversial but crucial source of energy that can produce large amounts of electricity with very low carbon emissions. Many see its role in the energy transition as vital, given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. However, nuclear energy is also intrinsically linked to issues of national and international security, given the potential for military use of nuclear material and the catastrophic consequences of accidents or attacks on nuclear facilities.

The intensification of geopolitical tensions, reminiscent of the Cold War, could compromise the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in several ways as investment and international collaboration, safety and regulation, nuclear proliferation, prioritization of alternative energy sources and challenges in financing and insurance.

A tense political climate could negatively affect investments in civil nuclear technology and international collaboration. Given their technical complexity, high costs, and need for rigorous safety standards, nuclear energy projects often depend on significant international cooperation. Geopolitical tensions can make this cooperation difficult, delaying or even cancelling essential projects.

Safety is a top priority for nuclear energy, involving strict regulations and safety measures to prevent accidents or attacks. An unstable geopolitical environment can increase the risk of conflicts that could threaten the security of nuclear facilities and complicate international efforts to maintain and improve nuclear security regimes.

We need more and more atoms for peace!

Concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons could be exacerbated in a context of rising tensions, which could lead to greater scrutiny and restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, processes essential to the civilian use of nuclear energy. This could limit the development and expansion of nuclear energy as a solution to climate change.

In a scenario of heightened geopolitical tensions, countries may prioritize energy sources perceived as less vulnerable to geopolitical disruptions or acts of sabotage, such as renewable energy. While the transition to renewable energy sources is crucial to decarbonization, nuclear power is considered by many to be an important part of the energy mix needed to achieve carbon neutrality.

Given the increased perception of risk, increased geopolitical tensions could lead to higher insurance costs and financing difficulties for nuclear energy projects. This could make nuclear energy less competitive compared to other energy sources.

To mitigate these risks and ensure that nuclear energy can play its role in the fight against climate change, it would be crucial to maintain international dialogue and cooperation, even in times of geopolitical tensions. This would include promoting global stability, strengthening non-proliferation and nuclear security regimes, and investing in technologies that minimize proliferation risks and maximize security.

In this troubled context, nuclear energy can be seen as both a problem and a solution. Only the effective engagement of technicians and institutions, no first use of nuclear weapons police and valuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes will create conditions for peace and lasting prosperity. We need more and more atoms for peace!

*The writer is a nuclear and naval engineer (PhD) and a member of the Brazilian National Academy of Engineering. CEO of Eletronuclear S.A. Coordinator, Brazilian Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: “Atoms for Peace” is a 3-cent U.S. stamp presentation with President Eisenhower in 1955 (public domain) superimposed on ‘Nuclear Weapons’ (Britannica). Collage by IDN.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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