Opinion

U.S. Nuclear Power: America’s Brand Is at Risk

In March 1955, the U.S. National Security Council issued a report, NSC 5507/2, entitled “Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy,” formally setting America’s civilian nuclear power policy. The objectives, stated as being “in the interests of national security,” can be summarized as follows:

— Maintain U.S. leadership in the field;

— Use such leadership to promote cohesion within the free world;

— Increase progress in development and application of peaceful uses of atomic energy in free nations abroad;

— Ensure continued U.S. access to foreign uranium and thorium supplies; 

— And prevent diversion to non-peaceful uses of fissionable materials.

Early U.S. nuclear power policymakers comprehended their moment in history and were clear-eyed and realistic as to the strategic geopolitical importance of America remaining engaged in not only an advanced domestic nuclear enterprise but also in international nuclear collaborations. In their vision of America’s role in the world, nuclear power wasn’t just another energy commodity, the fate of which should be dictated by political calculus, popular opinion or market forces alone. Rather, they considered nuclear power as central to America’s foreign policy, so their approach to nuclear policy was principled and strategic, not populist and transactional.

To that end, U.S. nuclear power policy conveyed America’s commitment to, and engagement with, what was planned to be a post-war, liberal international order of allied nations committed to the shared objectives of rule of law, individual liberty, cooperative security, multilateral alliances and fair trade. 

As such, U.S. civilian nuclear policy was crafted as a foreign policy/national security issue, not merely a domestic energy policy issue. And a key objective was to create the world’s most advanced nuclear technology base from which mutually beneficial global partnerships could be established within the emerging liberal international order.

This strategic policy of international leadership, this promise and commitment to engage with the world in the development and deployment of safe nuclear power, was the heart of America’s 20th-century nuclear brand. However, that brand is at risk as public opinion on nuclear power is scattered and America is debating whether it should maintain its nuclear power enterprise or ban it altogether. Moreover, numerous U.S. nuclear plants are at risk of early closure, and Georgia’s Plant Vogtle is the only current nuclear construction project in the United States

This disposition toward U.S. nuclear power does not align with 21st century realities on at least two counts.

First, global economic development in the 20th century was dependent upon reliable electricity, and nuclear power was part of America’s domestic and global response. In the 21st century, global economic development is far more complex than it was in 1955 as climate change, which is now characterized as a national security issue, is embedded in the calculus of electricity generation and economic growth. In this regard, as the United States debates its climate policy, it should do so within the necessary global context. 

From 2000-18, global carbon dioxide emissions increased 10,018.3 million metric tons, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for 9,004.1 mmtons — 89.9 percent of the change. By comparison, U.S. CO2 emissions decreased 721.3 mmtons during this period. 

Extending this further, if all U.S. CO2 emissions were immediately eliminated, global emissions would be reset to 2006 levels, yet continue increasing. Meaning, U.S. climate policy focused predominantly on domestic emissions won’t impact the trajectory of global CO2 emissions. 

This recommends a strategic approach within a global framework wherein U.S. climate policy aligns with 21st-century energy and climate realities. To that end, the United States can broadly impact global CO2 emissions by upholding its original promise to collaborate on the deployment of U.S. nuclear power to support low-carbon economic growth and development in regions where carbon emissions are most acute. 

Second, in the short period of time America had a monopoly on nuclear science and technology following World War II, policymakers understood the importance of projecting to the world that America’s intentions for atomic energy would be grounded in principles of safe, peaceful applications of nuclear technology coupled to security and international nuclear safeguards. It was critical that the U.S. atomic energy enterprise not be a military-only endeavor; otherwise it would feed into the propaganda charges of the Soviet Union “that the U.S. is concerned solely with the destructive uses of the atom”

That reality must be accounted for today as China and Russia, America’s 21st-century great power rivals, could leverage a military-only disposition should the United States disengage from civilian nuclear efforts. A military-only nuclear power enterprise is not America’s brand.

In all, U.S. policymakers today must bear in mind that climate policy influences energy policy, and energy policy influences the trajectory of U.S. energy technology development. If that trajectory is oriented away from nuclear power, it will signal not merely a U.S. retreat from nuclear as a domestic energy technology, but it will signal to the international community that America has chosen to abandon its original principles, promises and commitments to be a trusted, reliable partner in civilian nuclear technology development. Moreover, it will signal that America is willing to abdicate its international leadership role in nuclear technology.  

America’s leadership and stewardship in the global nuclear ecosystem has been central in sustaining the liberal international order that has prevented great power competition from devolving into global war for the past 75 years. However, if America abandons its nuclear enterprise, the question must be asked: “Can the liberal international order be sustained with an illiberal, authoritarian power such as China or Russia having displaced America as the global leader in nuclear science, engineering and technology?”

America’s nuclear brand is tarnished and is at risk of being competed out of existence by state-owned Chinese and Russian brands. It’s a risk that can be avoided through a recommitment to America’s original nuclear power policy principles that were grounded in international engagement, collaboration and partnership.

 

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia and a resident fellow in the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security, and Gattie is an unpaid member of the advocacy council for Nuclear Matters. The opinion expressed here is his own.

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