National security stakes of US nuclear energy

National security stakes of US nuclear energy
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The recent struggles of the U.S. nuclear energy industry may appear to be no more than the usual economic disruption caused by competition among technologies. But from our experience in diplomacy and the armed forces, we understand that a declining domestic civil nuclear industry has other ramifications. Critical U.S. national security interests are at risk.

We have dedicated our careers to controlling the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. But since the Atoms for Peace era, U.S. leadership in supplying peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment, and fuel to the world has been important for world development and therefore critical for the United States to establish and enforce standards for nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation. But in recent decades, the U.S. share of international commercial nuclear energy markets has diminished, and so with it has the United States’ ability to influence global standards in peaceful nuclear energy.

The critical moment for U.S. leadership in nuclear energy is when a country is developing nuclear energy for the first time. The supplier country and the developing country typically forge a relationship that endures for the 80- to 100-year life of the nuclear program. Unlike a coal or gas plant, nuclear reactors need specialized fuel and maintenance. Once established, the bilateral commercial relationship is not easily dislodged by a rival nation, providing the supplier profound and lasting influence on the partner’s nuclear policies and practices.

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Russia and China have identified nuclear energy as a strategic export, to be leveraged for geopolitical influence as well as for economic gain. According to a recent analysis, Russia is the supplier of more nuclear technology than the next four largest suppliers combined, and China is quickly emerging as a rival. If the United States fails to compete in commercial markets, it will cede leadership to these countries on nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation, as well as foreign policy influence.

As the competition intensifies to deliver the next generation of nuclear power technologies, U.S. nuclear leadership is approaching a watershed opportunity. Simpler, scalable, and less expensive, small and advanced reactors are commercially attractive to an expanded range of markets — particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 

The United States has the world’s best training and development programs, unmatched regulatory experience, and multiple small and advanced reactor designs; we should be the easy choice for the next generation of nuclear technology. But early U.S. engagement in these important geopolitical regions is critical. Without it, Russia and China will lock up future nuclear markets through MOUs and other bilateral agreements. 

And for addressing the national security risks of climate change, nuclear energy is not just an option but a necessity. Developing nations that are planning to meet power and water needs for large and growing populations must have reliable, demonstrated, zero-emission nuclear power in order to meet global climate goals as well. Advanced reactors are integral to these goals.

In the United States, nuclear energy is responsible for a fifth of the United States’ total electricity and more than 55 percent of our emissions-free energy, but the pace of domestic construction of new natural gas plants far exceeds the few nuclear plants under development, and the existing fleet is retiring prematurely at an alarming rate.

Which brings us back to the domestic nuclear industry. U.S. global competitiveness and leadership are inextricably linked to a strong domestic nuclear program. Without a healthy domestic fleet of plants, the U.S. supply chain will weaken against international rivals.

Russia has brought six new plants online in the past five years and has six more plants currently under construction. In the same period, China has brought 28 new plants online and has 11 others under construction. These domestic projects provide Russia and China with a robust supply chain, an experienced workforce, and economies of scale that make them more competitive in bidding on international projects. Unless we continue to innovate and build new plants, we will cease to be relevant elsewhere.

Even our own domestic energy security is supported by nuclear power. The nuclear plants operating today are the most robust elements of U.S. critical infrastructure, offering a level of protection against natural and adversarial threats that is unmatched by other plants. Because the nation’s grid supplies power to 99 percent of U.S. military installations, large scale disruptions affect the nation’s ability to defend itself.

We can regain U.S. leadership in nuclear energy. The key steps are to maintain the domestic reactor fleet, with its reservoir of know-how, and to assist American entrepreneurs in developing the next generation of the technology.

But the first step is to recognize what is at stake.

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Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is a retired diplomat who helped negotiate every international arms control and nonproliferation agreement from 1970 to 1977.

Admiral Richard W. Mies is a former commander in chief of strategic command, the operational commander of U.S. nuclear forces, from 1998 until 2002, who helped shape post-9/11 U.S. nuclear strategy.

Ambassador Graham and Admiral Mies are co-chairs of the Nuclear Energy and National Security Coalition (NENSC).