There is a growing consensus that the United States must reassert its global leadership in nuclear energy to meet our national imperatives. These include halting climate change, strengthening economic partnerships in foreign markets and maintaining our national security. The reestablishment of America’s nuclear leadership can only happen with a robust advanced nuclear industry supported by well-funded research and development (R&D) partnerships, reactor demonstration programs and export policy reforms.
Despite customer demand, the U.S. nuclear industry is absent in the world marketplace, having ceded new build opportunities to China, Russia and others. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. nuclear developers and suppliers are missing out on a $500 billion to $740 billion international market over the next 10 years in new nuclear energy.
Clamoring for carbon-free, baseload power and under pressure to limit global warming to a 1.5°C rise above pre-industrial levels, many governments increasingly recognize that new nuclear energy plants must be deployed rapidly and at a large scale by 2050 if decarbonization targets are to be met. The latest government to put their climate hopes on new nuclear energy is Canada’s uranium-producing province of Saskatchewan, which announced June 24 that it is establishing a government office to deploy small modular reactors (SMRs).
In particular, next-generation advanced reactors, SMRs and microreactors offer even the remotest of communities, including those in the Arctic Circle or heart of Africa, a continuous supply of safe, flexible and secure carbon-free electricity and heat needed for industrial manufacturing.
America’s forgoing of nuclear opportunities abroad also jeopardizes its national security by allowing the atrophy of the nuclear expertise and knowledge necessary for maintaining both its existing nuclear power plants and its reactor-powered Navy of aircraft carriers and submarines. According to the Atlantic Council, America’s civil nuclear industry currently provides an estimated $42.4 billion of value to national security.
Three Steps the Federal Government Can Take Today to Support the Domestic Nuclear Industry
- Congress can help ensure the future of America’s nuclear industry by increasing appropriations funding for R&D, demonstration programs and collaborative partnerships between advanced reactor developers and the U.S. Department of Energy. Whether through the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act or as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress must provide the highest levels of funding for the fast-neutron Versatile Test Reactor and a stockpile of high-assay, low-enriched uranium, both of which will give U.S. developers the testing capabilities and fuel required to commercialize advanced reactors and technologies.
- The U.S. government can encourage nuclear exports by lifting nuclear finance bans at the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The recent announcement that the DFC proposed removing its legacy prohibition on support for nuclear power projects is a critical step in helping American companies compete overseas with state-backed corporations. Policymakers need to encourage the World Bank to follow suit and, building upon this, the capabilities of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and DFC must be strengthened to enable competitive financing models for U.S. nuclear developers to compete abroad. [Ed. note: On July 23, the DFC announced its modernized nuclear energy policy.]
- A senior administration position ought to be dedicated to coordinating nuclear exports and policy. This senior position, which can be created immediately, would ensure that the U.S. has a coherent strategy with allied countries and investment partners in building new nuclear energy.
U.S. competitiveness in nuclear technology, let alone its leadership, is becoming a memory. The U.S. economy and national security cannot afford to continue to cede the world’s clean energy future. Congress and the administration must act now to reestablish and secure America’s place as the world leader in nuclear energy.