America’s Neglect of Nuclear Power 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 balked at providing support military to Ukraine and to impose strong economic sanctions on Russia because of the threat. that Putin would cut oil and gas exports.

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

Failure to invest in nuclear infrastructure and a sclerotic nuclear regulatory system have led to premature plant closures, problems building new reactors, increased regulatory burdens and operating costs, and an atrophied domestic supply chain for uranium and nuclear fuels. Russia now supplies 20% of the enriched uranium that powers our reactors, and Russia’s TENEX is currently the world’s only commercial supplier of high-dosage low-enriched uranium (HALEU) on which many of America’s next-generation reactors will run. . Russia also currently operates the only facility capable of testing the materials and components that can keep the United States at the forefront of commercial nuclear power technology.

America’s short-sighted neglect of its nuclear energy sector has also weakened our nation’s power and global influence against the authoritarian regime of Russia. Russia is today the world’s largest exporter of nuclear technology, offering an attractive package of technology, financing, nuclear fuel and waste disposal to nations seeking clean and reliable nuclear power as protection against overreliance on imported fossil fuels and intermittent renewables. Globally, Russia produces about 40% of total enriched uranium production for civilian nuclear power.

Many of our democratic allies, from Eastern Europe to Africa to Latin America, would prefer to use American nuclear technology and do not want the strings that are tied to nuclear commercialism and armed energy diplomacy. of the Kremlin. American nuclear engineering remains the best in the world. American companies have developed a range of highly innovative nuclear technologies and business models that can meet the enormous global demand for clean and reliable energy, help our allies avoid dependence on Russian energy technologies and fuels and Chinese and develop US technology and energy export markets.

Eastern European countries, in particular, have long sought to import US nuclear technology over objections from countries like Germany and Belgium, warning European leaders that the geopolitical and security risks of importing of energy from Russia were far greater than the risks associated with nuclear energy. These concerns have proven to be prophetic.

In the absence of an American option, the alternative in the decades to come will probably be Chinese reactors. China has made huge investments in nuclear technology over the past decade and is poised to start exporting these technologies soon. But it brings dependency on America’s strongest competitor and a long-term national security challenge under Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule and therefore poses an even greater threat to geopolitical and economic interests. the United States.

Reversing America’s decline as a leader in nuclear energy will require urgent action from the Biden administration and the US 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 (DW. Va.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho). Their bill would expand the ability of the United States to process and enrich uranium for our own national needs and for our allies, as well as invest in new capabilities to produce the more enriched uranium that will power the next generation of American reactors. It would also accelerate the export of critical nuclear technology to our allies and help bolster their nuclear energy programs.

But there is still work to be done to ensure that America and its allies break our dependence on Russian nuclear technology. Above all, 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 features that allow them to operate safely without the multiple layers of redundant safety systems that are now required to operate conventional reactors.

There is no reason it should take a decade and a billion dollars to license a new nuclear reactor, as has remained the case for the past few years. Congress must also fully fund the Multipurpose Test Reactor, which is needed to ensure that the United States will be able to test and bring innovative new nuclear technologies to market.

Perhaps in the years following the Cold War, the national security interests of the United States could resist importing our Middle Eastern oil, our solar panels and our critical minerals from China and of our uranium from Russia. But that era is over. The time has come for President Biden and Congress to take the necessary steps to ensure that America and its Democratic allies have access to advanced nuclear energy technology made in the United States and to guarantee that an energy safe, clean and reliable is available worldwide to power open energy and democratic societies.

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

Valerie Shen is vice president of Third Way’s national security program.

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