The United States government invented civil nuclear energy, commencing a wide-ranging research, development and demonstration program built off of the World War II Manhattan Project.
The Atoms for Peace program, initiated by President Eisenhower in the mid-1950s, gave the effort a major boost. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission — the predecessor of today’s U.S. Department of Energy — later began research development and demonstration programs in virtually all areas of energy technology.
That was decades ago. So why should the federal government today continue to have a role in nuclear energy development or, for that matter, any form of energy technology development? Why not leave energy development and deployment to the private sector?
One important answer is that private sector success in energy innovation delivers benefits to the country and the world, far beyond what would motivate an individual company. Our nation wins when our private sector commercializes technologies that address national needs like energy independence, fuel diversity and environmental priorities. These needs may not be met if energy innovation is left entirely to the private sector.
In the unique case of nuclear energy, there is also a crucial national security rationale. Nuclear energy technology offers enormous benefits, but also has the potential of being misused. The very nature of this potential for so-called “dual-use” compels a federal role. For the U.S. to succeed in fulfilling this national security role, our domestic nuclear energy strategy must include four key components.
First, we must ensure significant domestic nuclear energy production. A myriad of treaties and international oversight mechanisms have been instituted to promote nuclear safety and contain the spread of nuclear weapons. To retain a leading role in setting these international standards, the U.S. must be a major player in domestic nuclear energy. The U.S. government, therefore, should take action to keep its domestic industry sound. This includes keeping existing plants running by ensuring our electricity markets appropriately price nuclear-generated electricity, and by ensuring our regulatory process functions effectively and efficiently.
The nation must also demonstrate that it can build new plants by completing the reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, and must show we can move beyond political arguments and implement technically sound approaches to nuclear waste disposal. This will renew our reputation as the international leader in nuclear energy and encourage other countries to choose U.S. technology.
The federal government should support this new reactor construction through the extension of the nuclear production tax credit. The U. S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill to extend the credit, and the Senate should follow its lead.
Second, our private nuclear energy sector must compete and win in the international marketplace. The export of a broad range of civil nuclear technologies ensures U.S. influence to protect against misuse. Through exports we can ensure U.S. standards of safety and security become commonplace throughout the world. The federal government must therefore take steps to assure the competitiveness of U.S. nuclear exports, such as streamlining export review processes, providing financing via the Export-Import Bank, providing assistance with used fuel issues in other countries and stepping up commercial advocacy through the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Third, we must be an early, and active, partner to the many countries with no previous nuclear experience that want nuclear energy. It is critical that these countries select proven technologies that are appropriately regulated and operated. The U.S. must take the lead in guiding these foreign governments in the development of nuclear energy infrastructure. That means education and training programs, regulatory frameworks and sound approaches to waste management.
Otherwise, we may see the proliferation of unsafe and insecure practices.
And finally, the U.S. must continue to lead in nuclear energy innovation. Leadership in innovation must include early stage funding for university-based research. In addition, the U.S. is home to dozens of companies, large and small, that are leading the world in the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors, advanced fuels and other technologies.
For our companies to compete successfully against government-owned nuclear enterprises in Russia and China, our government must continue employing private-public partnerships, to prove our innovative new technologies can be confidently deployed by energy providers in the U.S. and abroad.
By helping our companies innovate, compete and win in the world market, we can grow American influence in the parts of the world that are seeking to expand the use of nuclear power — particularly Africa, Asia and the Middle East — and pave the way for the next generation of U.S. nuclear energy leadership. Such a strategic direction will help assure that future generations of civil nuclear technology will use the highest standards of safety and security.
Warren F. Miller led the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy from 2009-2010, served as co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nuclear Initiative and held leadership positions at Texas A&M University and Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is currently affiliated with Texas A&M and Stanford University.
Peter B. Lyons led the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy from 2010-2015, served as a Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005-2009, served on the staff of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and held leadership positions at Los Alamos National Laboratory;
John F. Kotek is vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute and led the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy from 2015-2017, served in the office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and held management positions with Argonne National Laboratory.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.