On the Front Line of Climate Change

How small nuclear reactors could help the Caribbean fight back against global warming

On the Front Line of Climate Change

If there is “front line” in a planet-wide climate crisis, it may well be the Caribbean, where large populations live on islands that are right in the path of hurricanes that are stronger and come more frequently than ever. The storms wreck power systems, other infrastructure, and housing that were not designed to withstand the assault.

The region recognizes the problem. At a recent meeting of top-level officials convened to address the problem, Phillip Davis, the prime minister of the Bahamas, said that “Almost one-third of national debt is as a result of hurricanes and other climate-related impacts.”

But how to react?

The Caribbean should of course do its part in cutting the carbon emissions that are driving sea level rise and increasingly powerful storms, but the impact of that effort will depend on work done by larger countries around the globe. Even if the Caribbean cuts all its emissions, it will not cause a major dent in global carbon emissions because Latin America and the Caribbean are responsible for less than 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. What the Caribbean can do for itself is improve its resiliency, its ability to withstand severe weather, and its capacity to quickly recover from killer storms and hurricanes.

Nuclear energy is a tool for advancing both objectives—carbon emissions reduction and improved resilience—but it did not get much attention at the recent Partnership to Address the Climate Crisis (PACC) 2030 summit.

PACC was launched by Vice President Kamala Harris back in 2022. And this year, the Atlantic Council Caribbean Initiative (in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute) hosted a one-day PACC 2030 on June 9 on the sidelines of Harris’ visit to the Bahamas.

The event attracted several prime ministers and high-ranking government officials from the United States and from Caribbean countries, as well as representatives of non-profit groups, private sector companies, and financial institutions.

Some of the participants brought with them promises of aid. The U.S. government, for example, said it would support a $160 million loan to the Bahamas by the Inter-American Development Bank. The funding is meant to improve disaster preparedness, and will provide financial and technical support to finance climate projects in Barbados. Harris said that the U.S. Agency for International Development would provide $20 million to help mobilize private finance, to stimulate a Caribbean climate investment program that would provide financial and technical assistance for enterprises deploying renewable energy technologies, and to improve energy efficiency and climate adaptation.

The lack of discussion on nuclear energy at the event was notable because the Caribbean is prime territory for micro-reactors or small modular reactors, which could displace the coal and heavy oil—both of them highly polluting—now used to make electricity. Advanced reactors are also much more storm-resistant than existing generators. When I raised a question about nuclear energy in a panel session on building local capacity, a private sector energy official confirmed that it is not a subject of active discussion.

But nuclear energy should have a higher profile, given its value in addressing energy security and climate resilience.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to energy in the Caribbean. The region is rich in natural resources like the sun and the ocean. But small nuclear reactors would allow rapid decarbonization of large island nations like The Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, to name a few.

Whether it includes nuclear or not, governments and the private sector in the Caribbean are going to have to develop some kind of incentive program for investment in energy infrastructure. Otherwise, the region may lose investors to the United States, where the Inflation Reduction Act, whose promise of subsidies could pull in investment that could have gone to other countries, has already created a U.S. boom in clean energy projects. If that happens, the Caribbean will lose leverage for securing a self-sufficient, sustainable and prosperous energy future.