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Will the US lead? Or let China and Russia dominate nuclear energy

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In 1945, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) gave what is commonly referred to as “the speech heard round the world”. He opened with the remark: “There are critical moments in the life of every nation which call for the straightest, the plainest, and the most courageous thinking of which we are capable. We confront such a moment now.”

Here, the once-staunch isolationist Vandenberg reflected his personal reconciliation with the reality that America could no longer pursue a laissez-faire posture toward U.S. foreign policy post-WWII. The geopolitical ecology of nations was primed for change, and it was incumbent upon America to take the lead and shape that ecology into a liberal world order based on the rule of law, cooperative security, free trade, human rights and multilateral institutions. 

However, it would require America to think in fundamentally different constructs. Holistic constructs of alliances, coalitions and partnerships such as the U.N., NATO and the International Atomic Energy Agency, each of which constituted an ecological whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. 

The alternative was to allow an illiberal, authoritarian communist power to prey on individual war-weakened countries throughout Europe and Asia and impose its ideological will, thus creating its own ecology of nations within its sphere of influence.

The 21st century is undergoing fundamental geopolitical shifts as great power competition has re-emerged as a central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security with China and Russia seeking to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model. And, embedded in their geopolitical strategies are state-owned nuclear power enterprises leveraged as extensions of the state to establish long-term energy and technology dependencies in emerging economies. Theirs is a top-down nuclear ecology, focused on influence and dominance, not strictly economic development or multilateral cooperation alone.

While the U.S. was the 20th-century global leader in nuclear technology, it now lags behind China and Russia in new and planned nuclear construction and is at a financial disadvantage when competing with state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This is raising concerns among many who consider U.S. leadership in nuclear technology, or the loss thereof, as a national security issue

The issue isn’t whether the U.S. has the technological capability to compete and lead — that was proven in the 20th century. The issue is, America’s 20th-century nuclear construct cannot compete with 21st century SOEs in China and Russia. Consequently, America’s 20th-century nuclear enterprise requires a new ecology if it is to meet the geopolitical challenges of the globalized 21st century and renewed great power competition.

Moreover, with the UK, South Korea, Japan and France having shown signs of political uncertainty in their respective commitments to nuclear power, the global nuclear ecosystem is potentially vulnerable to domination by a country pursuing a role of top predator. 

Meanwhile, the world is seeking U.S., Allied leadership in nuclear power — a clarion call that must be heard. At a minimum, there must be a viable non-authoritarian nuclear partner alternative committed to the rule of law, individual liberty, cooperative security, multilateral alliances and fair trade. However, while other countries waver, two countries show no signs of retreating from an aggressive nuclear power future — China and Russia. In fact, they are doubling down.

America must decide if its 20th-century global nuclear leadership is worth retaining in the 21st century. If the decision is negative or one of indifference, then a post-WWI laissez-faire approach will suffice, no action is required, and global leadership will be enthusiastically pursued by an unchallenged China or Russia or a combination thereof while America gradually isolates itself within the global nuclear ecosystem. 

If the decision is to retain that role, America must once again think in fundamentally different constructs — holistic constructs for a new nuclear ecology. An ecology comprised of America’s top nuclear providers from various sectors of plant operation, fuel services, safety, security and project management, organized into a robust U.S. nuclear ecosystem capable of doing collectively, what the parts cannot do individually — compete with SOEs. This can then be extended to include collaborations with the UK, South Korea, Japan and France as a multilateral response to authoritarian powers offering nuclear services.

Just as technology and tactics alone are insufficient for winning battles, development of advanced U.S. nuclear technology alone is unlikely to stand up to the SOEs of China and Russia. Rather, nuclear technology must be embedded in an overall nuclear policy strategy.

America’s 20th-century civilian nuclear strategy was successful in part because the U.S. had a head start in nuclear technology and was arguably unrivaled globally. Moreover, private industry was allowed to drive innovation while the public sector provided appropriate support. However, the advantage of that early lead and limited rivalry has evaporated and America finds itself lagging. To that end, it’s response should be to reevaluate its own nuclear ecology and reconstitute that ecology for 21st-century competition, keeping the private sector in the lead with appropriate support from the public sector.    

With respect to its nuclear enterprise, America needs a Vandenberg moment, where it realizes it must think in different constructs in order to align its nuclear ecology with the realities of 21st century great power competition.

That moment is now. 

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and a resident fellow in the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. Gattie is an unpaid member of the advocacy council for Nuclear Matters. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer. The opinion expressed here is his own.

Tags China David Gattie Energy International Nuclear energy Russia

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