Our world is a dangerous place, with lots of interconnected, moving parts. We are all safer when we understand the connections.
Recently, I signed on to a letter about one of those connections: nuclear energy and national security. I was one of 77 signers in the group, which included 21 retired admirals and generals; seven former directors of National Laboratories; five former United States senators; 14 former cabinet secretaries, under-secretaries and deputy secretaries; five current or former CEOs; and three former ambassadors.
Most people in this group are not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the financial side of the power grid. But they do know even better than most energy industry officials — a strong domestic nuclear power industry contributes in many ways to our national security. And if the decision whether to continue operating nuclear reactors is made purely on the short-term cost of a kilowatt-hour, we will be overlooking substantial value, and throwing away assets that will take years and billions of dollars to replace.
We need to take a step back and put these decisions in a fuller context.
To start with the obvious: 99 percent of our military bases rely on the electric grid. Increasingly, that grid relies on just-in-time deliveries of fossil fuel, reliant on far-flung networks of pipes, rails and barges. America’s nuclear plants keep 18 months to two years of fuel on site, and are hardened against natural and man-made threats.
And today our military doesn’t have weapons, it has weapons systems — systems that are based on extensive infrastructure. Some of this infrastructure is industrial and some is human, based on skills and knowledge that comes from related industry. The technological overlap between the reactors that power our submarines and aircraft carriers and the reactors that provide nearly 20 percent of the country’s electricity benefits both parties.
I know from my time as secretary of the Navy that we need the best and the brightest in the silent service, and the availability of jobs in the civilian sector for veterans of the nuclear Navy helps draw them to us.
A strong defense also requires a web of international relationships. One of the ways we build those relationships is through high-tech trade. And when this country exports a reactor, it cements a relationship lasting a century, covering planning, construction, operation and, eventually, decommissioning. In a world with voracious and growing demand for electricity, these deals are a tool of geopolitical jockeying. And it should be the United States that establishes those relationships, not our longstanding rivals, China and Russia.
That will require a strong nuclear industry here at home.
And we see geopolitical conflicts in coming decades based on competition for water, food and other resources. Stabilizing the climate will ameliorate those conflicts. Nuclear energy is far and away America’s largest source of carbon-free generation, so a key element of climate stabilization is preserving our domestic nuclear fleet and seeing more reactors built around the world. And production of copious amounts of energy globally, through nuclear power, reduces the importance of oil and gas, which can also be a source of conflict.
I signed on to the letter because while all these factors are in play here and around the world, they don’t play a big enough role in our domestic policy discussions. The government agencies that regulate the commercial arrangements on the grid are still struggling with how to put a dollar value on reliability and resiliency.
The people who run electricity markets are good at what they do, but putting an appropriate price tag on national security isn’t in their mandate. And it doesn’t have to be because other U.S. government resources familiar with national security that can fill these roles. When we need to make decisions that integrate a lot of connected factors, we have a policy system that can rise above the various narrow considerations and make over-arching decisions for the national good.
The letter was signed by a distinguished group with a simple ask to the secretary of Energy and the White House — see this connection and act appropriately.
John Warner is a senior advisor to the law firm of Hogan and Lovells. He previously served as the senator from Virginia from 1978 to 2009 and United States secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974.