When one of our nuclear-powered carriers or submarines goes to sea, we think of it as independent; it can move untethered around the globe, with energy for propulsion, communications, radars, satellite links and making fresh water. It keeps our sailors protected, their food frozen, and our adversaries wary.
And part of that supply chain is under threat.
The threat is to our civilian nuclear energy plants, which have many benefits to the nation, some obvious and some not. The plants provide nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, and they do it reliably and cleanly. They are an insurance policy against disruptions in the supply or price of fossil fuels, and reliable, stable electricity is an element of national security.
And they are part of an evolving technology that is essential as we move to reduce our carbon emissions and stabilize the climate.
The civilian industry also plays a role in our non-proliferation strategy. Developing countries with rapidly growing electricity demand are shopping for nuclear energy technology, and they will buy it from countries that have successful industries. When they buy from our companies, they sign on to a program we designed to keep the nuclear enterprise purely commercial. If they see that our industry is eroding, they will go where the strength is — state-owned enterprises in Russia or China. Whose proliferation protections would you trust?
Our industry is not threatened by technical problems; quite the opposite. The plants produced a record amount of electricity last year. But they are threatened because of the way we price electricity. A generation ago, we made decisions about building and operating power plants using human judgement, in the form of public service commissions, to maintain a fuel-diverse, balanced system. But in much of the United States, we’ve switched to a system based purely on the cost of generation, which is driven largely by fuel costs. And with the collapse in price of natural gas, prices are way down, and gas use is up.
But the market system does not consider the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuel. Polluting generators don’t pay for their emissions, so they appear less expensive than emissions-free nuclear. At the same time, the growth of government-supported wind and solar, while environmentally helpful, puts further downward pressure on market prices. And the electricity markets do not consider the national security ramifications of the nuclear fleet.
Market prices that only consider the cost of the electricity itself — while ignoring environmental, security and other costs — are insufficient to sustain nuclear resources.
Utility executives have to make decisions based on these markets, which were not designed to value national security or decarbonize the economy. Utilities have had to shutter reliable and safe nuclear plants, or to work with states to establish alternative payment mechanisms, to preserve the environmental, jobs and other benefits they provide.
The other consideration, often overlooked, is national security.
Naval propulsion reactors don’t look like civilian power plants, but the engineering and science are tightly related. They share an overlapping supply chain. If the civilian power market contracts, so will the supply chain the Navy relies upon.
Also shared are people. The Navy gets the best and the brightest in the nuclear submarine program partly because those sailors know that their job prospects are good when they get out. Moving from a ship’s control room to a control room in a power plant isn’t simple, and there are months of study and hard work involved. But the Navy vets have a leg up.
Recruiting for the nuclear Navy is going to be harder and less successful without a civilian industry to offer good-paying jobs after vets leave the service.
The connection to security is obvious to people like us, but evidently less so to the people who set up the electricity markets. We don’t blame them for the oversight, but now that they know, will they act?
So far they haven’t. But state governments in Illinois, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Ohio have made a policy decision to preserve their nuclear reactors. They do it for a variety of reasons, including the impacts on emissions (nuclear provides more than half our carbon-free energy) and jobs (each plant represents hundreds of well-paid jobs and a lot of money paid in taxes).
But it is time to think even more broadly than that; maintaining nuclear expertise is a critical part of national security. It will be hard for the Navy to excel at something that is an activity of the Navy alone. We need to maintain a viable civilian industry. And that requires an electricity market that supports the continued operation of our emissions-free fleet of nuclear power plants.
Admiral Richard W. Mies USN (Ret.) is a former commander in chief of United States Strategic Command. Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is a former senior diplomat. He was involved in every international nuclear arms-control agreement from 1970 to 1997.
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