America’s neglect of nuclear energy has weakened our global influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war against the Ukrainian people has been a wake-up call for America’s European allies, exposing critical national security vulnerabilities as countries like Germany have hesitated to provide military support to Ukraine and impose strong economic sanctions on Russia due to the threat that Putin would cut off oil and gas exports.

But it has also laid bare the consequences of the United States’ long neglect of its domestic nuclear energy sector. Major federal investments in solar, wind and natural gas technologies in recent decades have allowed the U.S. to cut off Russian fossil fuel imports with little impact on our economy. But over that same period, we have largely ceded U.S. nuclear energy leadership to Russia and China.

The failure to invest in nuclear infrastructure along with a sclerotic nuclear regulatory system has led to premature plant closures, construction challenges for new reactors, increased regulatory burdens and operational costs, as well as an atrophied domestic supply chain for uranium and nuclear fuels. Russia now provides 20 percent of the enriched uranium that fuels our reactors and Russia’s TENEX is currently the world’s only commercial supplier of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) that many of the next generation of American reactors will run on. Russia also currently operates the only facility capable of testing the materials and components that can keep the United States on the cutting edge of commercial nuclear energy technology.

America’s short-sighted neglect of its nuclear energy sector has also weakened our nation’s power and global influence relative to Russia’s authoritarian regime. Russia is today the world’s largest exporter of nuclear technology, offering an attractive package of technology, finance, nuclear fuel and waste disposal to nations looking for clean, reliable nuclear energy as a hedge against overdependence on imported fossil fuels and intermittent renewable energy. Globally, Russia produces roughly 40 percent of total enriched uranium production for civilian nuclear energy.

Many of our democratic allies, from Eastern Europe to Africa to Latin America, would prefer to use U.S. nuclear technology and don’t want the strings that come attached to the Kremlin’s nuclear mercantilism and strong-armed energy diplomacy. U.S. nuclear engineering remains the best in the world. U.S. companies have developed a range of highly innovative nuclear technologies and business models that can meet enormous global demand for clean, reliable, energy, help our allies avoid dependence on Russian and Chinese energy technology and fuels, and grow U.S. technology and energy export markets.

Eastern European nations in particular have long sought to import U.S. nuclear technology over the objections of nations such as Germany and Belgium, warning European leaders that geopolitical and security risks of importing energy from Russia were far greater than the risks associated with nuclear energy. Those concerns have proven prophetic.

Lacking a U.S. option, the alternative in the coming decades is likely to be Chinese reactors. China has made huge investments in nuclear technology over the last decade and is poised to begin exporting those technologies soon. But that brings dependence on America’s strongest competitor and long-term national security challenge under Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule and thus represents an even greater threat to U.S. geopolitical and economic interests.

Reversing America’s decline as a nuclear energy leader will require urgent action from the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress. There is strong bipartisan support for reinvigorating American nuclear energy, as evidenced by the International Nuclear Energy Act of 2022 introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho). Their bill would expand America’s ability to process and enrich uranium for both our own domestic needs and for our allies, as well as invest in new capabilities to produce the higher enriched uranium that will fuel the next generation of U.S. reactors. It would also expedite the export of critical nuclear technologies to our allies and help bolster their nuclear energy programs.

But there is still more work to do to assure that America and its allies break our dependence on Russian nuclear technology. First and foremost, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must reform and modernize its nuclear licensing procedures. Today’s advanced nuclear technologies are smaller, simpler, and safer than those of the past. Most have inherent and passive safety characteristics that allow them to operate safely without the multiple layers of redundant safety systems that are now required of operating conventional reactors.

There is no reason that it should take a decade and a billion dollars to license a new nuclear reactor, as has remained the case in recent years. Congress also needs to fully fund the Versatile Test Reactor, which is necessary to assure that the U.S. will be able to test and bring to market innovative new nuclear technologies.

Perhaps, in the years after the Cold War, U.S. national security interests could withstand importing our oil from the Middle East, our solar panels and critical minerals from China, and our uranium from Russia. But that era has come to an end. The time has come for President Biden and Congress to take the steps necessary to assure that America and its democratic allies have access to cutting edge, American made nuclear energy technology and ensure that safe, clean, and reliable energy is available globally to power open and democratic societies.

Ted Nordhaus is founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. 

Valerie Shen is vice president for the National Security Program at Third Way.

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