America is sacrificing its leadership role in nuclear energy

America is sacrificing its leadership role in nuclear energy
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Does nuclear power have a future in the United States? Perhaps the more important question should be: Does America have the vision and national resolve to develop comprehensive energy policies to maintain our leadership in nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is our only energy resource with the proven capacity to meet U.S. domestic objectives for reliable generation, economic growth and national security. And to meet our global objectives of economic development for emerging regions and the reduction of carbon emissions. 

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Choosing the right policies to rescue America’s nuclear leadership may be difficult, but the direction is straightforward: We must finish the two reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle in Georgia and the MOX fuel facility in South Carolina.

 

The foundation of America’s nuclear energy sector is the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — one of the most far-reaching policies in our nation’s history. It declared that the main purposes of atomic energy are:

  • to increase our standard of living
  • to promote world peace
  • to support the paramount objective of “making the maximum contribution to the common defense and security.” 

In addition, Section 123 of the Act made provisions for the U.S. to engage in bilateral agreements with other countries for peaceful nuclear cooperation. 

The Atomic Energy Act is an amazing legacy in comprehensive nuclear policy. But if recent policy decisions and trends are an indicator, America’s nuclear future seems tenuous. 

In 1977, U.S. policy deferred “indefinitely the reprocessing of spent nuclear power reactor fuel” to set an example for other nations to follow. The expectation was that the world would follow the United States. That didn’t transpire as France, the U.K., Russia, Japan and India have developed reprocessing capacity.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains buried in a multi-decade political morass over how to manage spent fuel. We are actually considering the termination of the MOX Project, a facility under construction at the Savannah River Site to convert weapons-grade material to fuel for power plants. 

Now, with the MOX Project more than 70 percent complete and with no comparable alternative, completing it is the only logical way forward. Completing the MOX facility will help realize the vision of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) who, with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), has been working tirelessly to eliminate the danger from weapons left over from the Cold War. 

In 1993, U.S. policy ended research on one of the most promising nuclear power technologies of the day — the integral fast breeder reactor being developed at Argonne National Laboratory. Now, Russia's BN-800 fast reactor has entered commercial operation; India is expected to commission a commercial fast breeder reactor by the end of 2017; and China is making significant advances in both molten salt and fast reactor technologies.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are building new nuclear plants while we are closing them prematurely. The rest of the world is moving forward in nuclear energy, while America is regressing. The United States is unilaterally surrendering its leadership in nuclear energy to Russia and China because of its failure to develop a comprehensive energy policy. 

Losing our edge in nuclear technology translates to more than the thousands of lost jobs at nuclear plant projects or billions in lost nuclear export opportunities. It also erodes our national security. When America is not at the table, we have little say about how countries use their nuclear technologies. 

America — the global steward of nuclear technology since the signing of the Atomic Energy Act — is now allowing nuclear power’s fate to be determined by anti-nuclear activism and poorly-structured deregulated markets that do not recognize the benefits of what is arguably the most strategically important energy resource on Earth.

Rather than closing nuclear plants, the United States should incentivize the construction of new plants, including small modular reactors. Rather than mothballing nuclear technologies such as molten salt reactors, the U.S. should develop and advance them. Rather than burying spent nuclear fuel, the U.S. should have policies that promote recycling and the development of advanced fuel cycles.

America should be doing a whole lot more to protect its leadership in nuclear energy. But for now, completing the Vogtle reactors and the MOX fuel facility are good places to start.

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia where he established the university’s first environmental engineering degree program in 2009. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer.