At a recent United Nations Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty conference, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, warned about the danger of a nuclear conflict as fighting in Ukraine continues and tensions in the Taiwan Straits grow.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the world dangerously watched as the United States and the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) squared off in the Cuban missile crisis.
Sixty years later, Guterres said the world is back to square one.
“Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, said. “Humanity is in danger of forgetting the lessons forged in the terrifying fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The situation, he said, is alarming “at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”
But, apart from nuclear weapons, the real danger comes from the race between the United States and China to build miniature nuclear reactors capable of generating about 1.5 megawatts of electricity purely for military purposes.
There is already available technology for small nuclear reactors for peaceful use. Russia has built its own smaller modular nuclear reactor and deployed it on a barge for an Arctic community.
The United States, China, and South Korea have also been experimenting on smaller nuclear reactors that could generate about 60 megawatts of electricity and power remote and off-the-grid communities
John Kerry, the former US State Department secretary and now special envoy for climate change, has even offered to finance the building of a smaller modular nuclear reactor (SMR) in the Philippines as part of its clean energy project.
The small modular nuclear reactors, which are the size of a 10-wheeler truck, are perfect solutions to the power-hungry Philippines where many small islands are not connected with the main power grid. These nuclear power projects are environment-friendly.
However, the United States and China have started developing miniature nuclear reactors for military purposes, allowing its soldiers to operate in remote areas where there are no power sources.
In September 2021, China built the first electricity-generating generation IV nuclear reactor, which it called the HTR-PM. The United States responded by building its own generation IV nuclear reactor in April 2022 at Idaho National Laboratory.
The Pentagon has been experimenting on the technology for decades but found it too expensive in the earlier years, returning to fossil fuel to generate power in its remote bases.
The Pentagon said it uses approximately 30 terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day—levels that are only expected to increase due to the anticipated electrification of the non-tactical vehicle fleet and maturation of future energy-intensive capabilities.
“A safe, small, transportable nuclear reactor would address this growing demand with a resilient, carbon-free energy source that would not add to the DOD’s (Department of Defense’s) fuel needs, while supporting mission-critical operations in remote and austere environments,” it said in a statement after it launched Project Pele together with the US Army engineers and the Department of Energy.
With Project Pele, Washington has announced its direct competition with Beijing as well as its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, consistent with the Biden administration’s clean energy program.
US defense planners also see the value of small nuclear reactors in the Indo-Pacific region where the United States maintains a long-term presence to operate in much greater numbers, to deter China from launching an invasion of Taiwan.
These small nuclear reactors can run radar stations, communications, and internet connections, which are important as the US military moves toward information-heavy future operations.
However, there are some downsides in operating miniature nuclear reactors in the region. Obviously, there are safety concerns as well.
Small mobile nuclear reactors are also vulnerable in a battlefield context. They pose real danger. An enemy missile targeting a mobile microreactor could result in radioactive material getting out. And the reactor cannot be buried, because it needs passive cooling in the event of a temperature buildup.
When fully operational, Washington may deploy miniature nuclear reactors in forward bases in the Indo-Pacific region, including in the Philippines. It will be useful in off-the-grid areas in Palawan and the power-starved Visayas and Mindanao islands.
These nuclear power reactors can add to electricity output in remote areas in the country but could be a virtual magnet for attacks from US adversaries, including China.
As competition with China in the Indo-Pacific regions heats up, the US will likely deploy not only long-range missiles but small nuclear reactors in the country, particularly in five local bases where Washington has access.
The horrors experienced in Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II might happen in some areas of the country if the US is allowed to deploy its hypersonic missiles and small nuclear reactors.
In 1945, Manila was the most destroyed city after Warsaw as the US battled the Japanese to liberate the Philippines. That should not happen again. The nuclear annihilation that the UN secretary-general had warned must be avoided. It should not be in the Philippines.