Reinvigorating Nuclear Energy


How to Reinvigorate US Commercial Nuclear Energy
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In “How to Reinvigorate US Commercial Nuclear Energy” (Issues, Winter 2018), Steven Aumeier and Todd Allen make a compelling and timely case about the importance of the nuclear energy sector in the United States and why it should be encouraged.

A broad range of imperatives—including national commitments to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions and the need to meet growing energy demands, diversify energy supplies, ensure long-term price stability, and conserve land and natural resources—are driving an increasing number of countries to embark on nuclear energy development programs. Unlike during the 1970s and ’80s when the first global wave of nuclear construction took place, there are now multiple alternatives to US suppliers and several nations to which aspiring nuclear programs can turn to acquire civilian nuclear reactor technology.

Two nations in particular, Russia and China, have demonstrated their intent to employ nuclear energy exports as a means of expanding and strengthening their global influence. As Aumeier and Allen show, these nations are pursuing aggressive nuclear export strategies because they understand the long-term influence that comes from building a nuclear power plant in another nation. A nuclear plant is an extremely long-lived piece of energy infrastructure, designed to operate for 60 to 80 years, possibly more. So when a country sells a nuclear reactor to another nation, that transaction marks the beginning of what can be a century-long relationship. And the relationship is not just a commercial one; as I saw firsthand when I led the US Department of Energy’s nuclear energy program, bilateral relationships forged through commercial nuclear energy span a wide range of areas including education, training, safety regulation, environmental protection, physical and cyber security, and nuclear nonproliferation. These relationships lead to the types of long-term alliances that have been the hallmark of US global leadership.

As Aumeier and Allen demonstrate, there is no question that the best outcome for the US economy, national security, and global standing is for the United States to reestablish itself as the nuclear energy supplier of choice in burgeoning markets in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Given that the private US companies pursuing global nuclear energy opportunities are competing against state-owned enterprises, the US government must concern itself with helping US firms compete—by expanding investments in clean energy research, development, and demonstration to ensure that the nation retains its place as the leader in nuclear energy innovation; by restoring a functional export credit agency; and by creating opportunities for US firms through government-to-government agreements. And finally, the nation must preserve its nearly 100 domestic commercial nuclear reactors. Keeping these reactors running isn’t just a crucial step in preserving America’s largest source of carbon-free electricity generation. The decades of safe, efficient, and reliable operation of these reactors have set the global standard for nuclear power operations. The United States will not be seen as a credible global nuclear leader if it allows this domestic nuclear fleet to atrophy.

Vice President for Policy Development and Public Affairs
Nuclear Energy Institute
Washington, DC

Steven Aumeier and Todd Allen make a timely and convincing case for the need to reexamine the present export rules and regulations toward China that impede US industry in competing in the global nuclear energy market.

Clearly, the dwindling domestic market will not be able to support a robust nuclear industry. It is also arguable that from a national security perspective, the United States needs to maintain a viable civilian nuclear industry to retain its influence in the nonproliferation arena.

BP Energy has projected that over the next 20 years three-quarters of the new nuclear reactors built will be in China. China has 36 operating plants today, but the number will double in 20 years, and by 2050 China will have over 100 plants, the largest operating fleet in the world.

Currently, the United States still has the most sought after advanced technology, but US nuclear exports to China have been severely curtailed by federal export regulation called 10 CFR Part 810. The Part 810 approval process can take more than 300 days, according to a recent study by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

The 810 regulation was instituted in the 1950s mainly for nonproliferation purposes when the United States was the only exporter of nuclear power. Today, US competitors include France, Russia, Canada, Korea, and China. Importantly, it is generally recognized that the widespread use of light-water reactor (LWR) technology globally has not created a corresponding proliferation threat. On the contrary, the countries that adopted US civilian nuclear technology have less of a tendency to pose a proliferation threat amid continuous engagement with the United States.

The export regulation toward China has been inconsistent. While the US government has granted permission for the transfer to China of the most advanced technologies—such as Gen III+ reactors, AP1000 reactors, traveling-wave reactors, and molten salt reactors—China is still subject to more stringent review with a case-by-case specific authorization on all commercial activities, large or small. Other countries competing with the United States do not impose the same scrutiny and restriction on China.

It is time for the United States to adopt a coherent export policy toward China. The two nations must build a stronger and trustworthy bilateral relationship in the civilian nuclear program to help ensure continued nonproliferation engagement.

The United States is running the risk of being a lame duck in the sphere of nonproliferation if it stays on its current course regarding nuclear export policy toward China. It is time for the United States to modernize its export control to reflect the world market reality. In this light, the United States should designate China the same as other recipient countries with which it has Section 123 agreements. (Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires an agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the United States and any other nation.) The United States could grant general authorization for LWR technology export to China that has no implication on proliferation concerns.

The days are gone when the one who provides the ball for the game can dictate the rules, because now there are many other balls available. The United States may still have the best ball around, but before long it will be standing on the sidelines unless it focus on how it can stay engaged today.

Fraser Energy Consulting LLC
Oakville, Ontario, Canada

Cite this Article

“Reinvigorating Nuclear Energy.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 3 (Spring 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring 2018