US must remain leader in nuclear enrichment

Achieving energy security is among our nation’s most pressing requirements in this still-young century. I believe that America must employ a more strategic national energy policy if it is to overcome the many complex energy challenges that will so heavily influence its economic and national security. While our continued dependence on foreign sources of oil might remain the most visible threat to American energy security, consequential energy-related threats such as climate change and the proliferation of nuclear material will continue to bear heavily on our security for many decades to come.

Nuclear nonproliferation, long one of America’s chief international security strategies, has been a major priority for this administration, as it has for every administration since World War II. Nuclear power is unique among energy sources because the commercial use of civilian technology is inseparable from nuclear security and proliferation concerns. The commercial trade of nuclear technology can heighten proliferation risks. Such vulnerabilities in a complex and dangerous world must continue to be managed responsibly — a primary objective of the nonproliferation laws and safeguards that accompany the export of U.S. nuclear technology. 

Our commercial leadership in the nuclear industry has been an enduring source of America’s influence in the global marketplace and a potent lever for promoting international cooperation in developing and enforcing nonproliferation regimes. Unfortunately, the U.S. is ceding its leadership in key areas of nuclear technology development. Of greatest concern is potential loss of leadership in the enrichment industry. The U.S. once produced a majority of the world’s supply of enriched uranium necessary to generate nuclear power, but today it produces only 25 percent. The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which operates the United States’s largest commercial uranium enrichment facility, is the only U.S. majority-owned supplier. However, its plant located in Paducah, Ky., uses antiquated and inefficient technology. The enterprise is not well-positioned to compete cost-effectively and its ability to sustain operations remains in serious doubt. 

The loss of our only domestically-owned source of enriched uranium will severely undermine America’s influence in the industry and our leadership in vital international nonproliferation efforts. Without the United States as a reliable source of nuclear fuel, particularly in a world with increasing demand for low- and no-carbon electric generation, other nations will have greater incentive to pursue their own enrichment capabilities, increasing the risks of proliferation and the chances that civilian nuclear technology will be diverted for malign purposes. We know well the adverse effects on U.S. national security and international stability of North Korea’s and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons under the guise of commercial enrichment.

The disappearance of a domestically owned capability would not only undermine U.S. leadership in a highly consequential arena of global commerce and security, it would render us dependent on foreign-controlled sources of uranium enrichment. This could increase the vulnerability not only of America’s commercial nuclear industry but of our national nuclear arsenal. Tritium, produced using enriched uranium, is necessary to maintain and modernize our nuclear weapons. Relying on foreign suppliers for material essential for maintaining the safety, security and reliability of our nuclear capability is unacceptable.

It is critical that the federal government continue to invest in the research and development of technologies necessary to sustain modern and commercially viable domestic enrichment capability. Toward this end, the Department of Energy has requested congressional authorization to repurpose $300 million dollars to support continued R&D over the next two years. Unfortunately, the initial $150 million needed to demonstrate new technologies was not included in the recent spending bill.

There is controversy over the appropriate role of the federal government in supporting technology commercialization. We must not let this debate negatively affect U.S. national security or our continued commitment to energy R&D vital to America’s energy, economic and national security — a role that has always, appropriately, received overwhelming bipartisan support.

Jones is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and co-chairman of its Energy Project. He was national security adviser to President Obama from January 2009 to November 2010.