By George David Banks
June 14, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
The recent announcement that Exelon, a leading U.S. utility, plans to shutter two of its nuclear power plants is a harbinger of things to come. As the U.S. nuclear sector continues to decline in part because of distorted electricity markets, so too is America’s ability to shape the global nonproliferation regime.
Against this dire backdrop, it’s no surprise that the Obama administration appears to have misled the public in order to secure support for the Iran deal. Given the current weakness of U.S. industry, Washington has diminished capabilities – compared to past decades – in managing the spread of civil nuclear technology and its inherent link with bomb making.
Of course, the President’s team does not want to publicize this disturbing fact. Neither does the White House appear to have the will to address the problem of stopping and then reversing the decline of U.S. power.
How did this occur? And what happened to our once dominant influence in nuclear energy? After all, America was first to develop the bomb and to harness nuclear energy to produce electricity. As recently as the 1980s, U.S. nuclear technology dominated the global market, but since then and over the course of multiple administrations, the U.S. civil nuclear program has atrophied with bleak prospects for recovery.
Today, America does not even possess a commercial uranium enrichment program. While we have blessed Iran’s ability to produce low-enriched uranium, President Obama shelved our own plans to do so in Ohio – ironically, last September 11. At the same time, U.S. nuclear vendors have become peripheral players, increasingly dependent on foreign markets and supply chains, as well as the goodwill of governments that are not always friendly to us.
In stark contrast, Chinese leaders, who appreciate the strategic value of nuclear technology, are playing it smart. In China’s dealings with Westinghouse, for example, Beijing leveraged its market power to gain a transfer of key technology that was developed with the help of U.S. taxpayers. With that one deed, Westinghouse gave a boost to China’s goal of capturing a global monopoly in nuclear energy exports. It also effectively destroyed thousands of potential U.S. jobs in states like Pennsylvania.
Beijing is likely to succeed. China was a nuclear technology backwater only 15 years ago with only three commercial reactors, compared to more than 100 in America. Today, China has 32 reactors with 22 under construction. By 2030, the country is projected to generate 150 gigawatts of power from nuclear energy (roughly equivalent to Germany’s total capacity in electricity), while the U.S. nuclear fleet is expected to shrink by 20 percent or more. In little more than a decade, China could have twice the number of reactors than the United States.
This development will have major negative implications for America as China gains a competitive advantage in deploying nuclear technology globally. It goes without saying that countries with vibrant nuclear industries will have greater influence in shaping the world’s non-proliferation and nuclear safety regimes. Foreign governments seeking to build a nuclear plant – and potentially using a program as a means to develop bombs – will go to Beijing for approval, not to Washington. Americans will have to watch as China determines which countries join the nuclear club.
Some pundits argue that China has a vested interest in preserving the current system of ensuring that countries acquiring nuclear technology develop programs solely for peaceful purposes. However, this view largely ignores the fact that Beijing seeks to remake the international order in its own image.
With nuclear dominance, Beijing could have an increased ability to use technology transfer as a means of increasing its influence in key strategic areas, including the Middle East. On the national security front, China – rather than rely on a decades-long program to catch up militarily with America – could move to more rapidly check U.S. power by transferring nuclear technology and know-how to U.S. rivals.
Despite joining the Non Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, China’s proliferation record has not been spotless. Recent research from the International Assessment and Strategy Center suggests that Beijing has helped Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. While China may have genuine problems with enforcement and compliance of its export control regulations, it’s also likely that some Chinese leaders view proliferation as a valid strategy in checking U.S. military superiority.
America cannot afford for China to enjoy a dominance in nuclear technology nor should it stand by helplessly as U.S. companies transfer technology and jobs to foreign markets. Washington needs to recognize that our nuclear program is a national asset before it’s too late.
Of course, America can’t begin to solve this problem if U.S. leadership does not first admit publicly that there’s a problem. The longer our foreign policy establishment elites bury their heads in the sand, the harder it will be to save our nuclear program. In the meantime, we should expect more embarrassing agreements like the Iran deal.
George David Banks, a former U.S. diplomat and CIA analyst, is the executive vice president of the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) in Washington, DC.