Congress should recognize China's nuclear ambitions, and it can start by preserving U-233
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As government has grown, large federal agencies — many with budgets larger than the GDP of most nations — have emerged. As a result, it has become commonplace for ineffective and expensive programs to continue undeterred for years, sometimes decades, without congressional intervention.

One such government program is currently destroying an important national resource, while unfolding behind the scenes is a Chinese nuclear buildup that could potentially put the United States at a great disadvantage.

The Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in Tennessee has a storied history within nuclear research and technologies. Little known, however, is an 18-year-old, half a billion dollar federal program to destroy a synthetic material called Uranium-233 (U-233). U-233 is a remnant of the 1960s molten salt reactor  program, and the inventory has been sitting in a building at ORNL ever since.

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U-233 has the potential to be an invaluable resource for advanced nuclear reactors that produce abundant, reliable, and carbon-free energy with significantly less waste. It cost billions in taxpayer dollars to create and store U-233. In the late 1990s, the Department of Energy (DOE) designated U-233 as waste material and issued a contract for permanent disposal of this material (known as downblending) at ORNL. The downblending program is ongoing to this day. Plagued with delays, to date, DOE has spent more than $630 million to destroy U-233, more than the entire government investment in small modular reactor R&D. Regardless of political leanings, that is not an outcome anyone expects from the DOE.

However, what was once labeled as waste is now viewed by some in the scientific, military, and business communities as an asset. The 900-pound inventory in Tennessee could potentially serve as a “seed” in thorium reactors to produce power continuously from inexpensive and readily available thorium. Pioneered at ORNL in the 1960s, thorium molten-salt reactors run on liquid fuel and promise incredible safety. Despite this alternative invented by American engineers with taxpayer funds, the nation’s thorium reactor plans were scrapped due to the politics of the time. U-233 also yields priceless isotopes crucial to advancing a game-changing cancer therapy that can be continuously harvested for decades.

A DOE Inspector General (IG) special report in 2008 told a similar story of the “potential for [U-233] to contribute to vital national interests,” and advised preservation of the material. Unfortunately, DOE management ignored this report, citing lack of congressional directive. In a subsequent audit, the IG once again criticized the downblending project, saying it may “exceed original cost estimates” and that it would “likely not meet completion milestones.” The IG was right.

The long-forgotten technology has seen a revival of sorts in recent decades, with India, Russia, and the EU starting programs of their own. China is also developing this advanced reactor technology, which as the name implies, uses melted salts of thorium with the key ingredient being U-233. While thorium reactors can provide electricity, the real impetus for the Chinese project comes from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s intentions to build a fleet of thorium-powered warships to challenge the U.S. worldwide. PLA’s involvement has turned the project from a $350 million trial into a $3.5 billion enterprise.

China received considerable American help along the way. In 2012, the late Peter Lyons of the DOE initiated a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Chinese Academy of Sciences that accelerated nuclear development, particularly thorium reactors, in China. When questioned about thorium reactors in 2011, and again in 2014, Lyons told Congress there was no advantage to pursuing them in the United States, despite a corpus of evidence to the contrary.

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ORNL revealed in 2015 that it had an active partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and would receive an estimated $5 million annually to work on the advancement of salt-cooled nuclear reactor technologies. Thanks to bureaucratic dysfunction, the birthplace of thorium reactors is destroying America’s only U-233 inventory while advancing Chinese pursuit of the reactor technology.

Energy innovation and cancer treatment should both be non-partisan issues. As we strive to maintain a secure and reliable energy future, inhibiting the development of any promising technology is irresponsible.

Yet, in the case of thorium reactors, we are not only destroying our unique U-233 inventory and even preventing domestic R&D, but actively ceding advantage directly to our geopolitical foe, the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party regime in China, essentially handing the Communists the next century of global power production and projection.

We know China is investing in their nuclear capabilities. A recent report created commotion in military and intelligence circles as China’s new nuclear facilities came to light. The Head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles A. Richard, acknowledged that U.S. officials recently became aware of the accelerated civilian nuclear development in China and are grappling with the implications.

The U-233 disposition program continues largely unnoticed in the largess of government spending, and the U.S. is nonsensically destroying a priceless national resource.  Coupled with DOE’s involvement in advancing China’s nuclear plans, and the Department of Defense’s realization that Chinese nuclear capabilities are growing, it is obvious that current policy is outmoded and requires immediate Congressional intervention. It is time for Congress to acknowledge China’s growing nuclear ambitions, and it can start by preserving America’s unique U-233 inventory.

Reschenthaler represents Pennsylvania’s 14th District and is a member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. Duncan represents South Carolina’s 3rd District and is a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy.