Nuclear Energy: A Key Component of America’s Global Leadership

More and more emerging countries are turning to nuclear power to support their energy needs and economic development objectives. Unfortunately, they aren’t turning to the United States for help. Instead, they’re turning to competing powers like Russia and China whose reactor technologies are cropping up in developing countries but not necessarily per the United States’ high nonproliferation standards. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that the United States marshal the political will to preserve its global leadership in nuclear energy, rather than ceding it to competing powers. It’s a matter of national security.

The United States is at an inflection point, and we need to decide if we gamble with our national security and let the markets dictate the future of nuclear energy, or enact policies that not only protect this domestic and international energy resource but also advance the development of critical U.S. nuclear technology. By reevaluating our domestic nuclear energy policies, we have the opportunity to maintain our global leadership while strengthening the nuclear industry at home. It goes without saying that nuclear energy is facing challenges in the United States, despite the fact that it runs 24/7 and is our country’s largest supplier of safe, reliable, carbon-free power. Yet, due to policies that favor energy sources such as wind, solar and natural gas, and the absence of policies that recognize nuclear’s benefits, nuclear power is being priced out of the energy markets, causing reactors across the country to close prematurely.

In contrast with China and Russia, we’re not investing in the future of nuclear energy as we should and can be. Currently, there are only two nuclear reactors under construction in the United States, at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, and none on the horizon. We’re also not investing sufficient resources into the development of advanced nuclear reactors — molten salt, fast breeders, small modular — that would help the United States remain on the leading edge of the nuclear industry.

In a recent paper, I proposed a nuclear energy policy framework to advance U.S. civilian nuclear power as a national security imperative. The framework calls for collaboration between the U.S. departments of energy, state and commerce, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to increase opportunities for the U.S. nuclear power industry to engage with developing countries. This would allow for continued U.S. leadership over the global nuclear fuel and supply chain while bolstering our domestic nuclear power industry. And, not only will the benefits of nuclear energy help emerging economies, but our engagement abroad will also generate profits for the U.S. nuclear industry.

But, this proposal is about more than just building new facilities overseas. Our involvement will create a long-term platform for educational opportunities and cross-cultural exchanges between the United States and emerging nations. Together, we will engage in training related to facility operation and maintenance, spent fuel management, safety and trade. This will also create the opportunity to establish goodwill in areas where our geopolitical influence is of strategic importance to America’s interests and national security.

Ultimately, this proposed policy framework would facilitate the generation of a self-sustaining revenue stream as a direct portion of returns from international investment that would be directed toward domestic nuclear research and development in order to continue U.S. leadership in this space.

As I point out in my paper, the importance of the U.S. nuclear industry to America’s national security cannot be overstated. It’s critical for our leaders at the state and federal levels to acknowledge that markets alone cannot detect how vital nuclear energy is to national security. Which is why they must enact policies that will retain nuclear energy as the critical resource it is within our country’s energy portfolio, invest in the future of the nuclear industry and maintain U.S. dominance in nuclear power technology globally.

Dr. David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia and a member of the Advocacy Council of Nuclear Matters.

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