How the U.S. can retake the global nuclear lead
More than a thousand participants joined a Department of Energy webinar on May 29 for a discussion of the Trump administration’s strategy for restoring the United States to a globally predominant position in the field of nuclear energy. The strategy was laid out in the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s recent report, Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage. (For details on the NRWG’s report, see our coverage here.)
The webinar, hosted by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, featured comments from a number of nuclear luminaries, among them Dan Brouillette, U.S. secretary of energy; John Hamre, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Clarence “Bud” Albright, president and CEO of the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council; and Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
Following are selected remarks from the speakers listed above.
Brouillette talks national security: "Behind the entire strategy is a very powerful realization. Simply stated, a robust nuclear industry is not only good for our energy security and our economic security, it’s absolutely essential for our national security. And one way in which this strategy bolsters national security should be obvious to all of us here today. As a vital source for 24/7 electricity, nuclear energy is essential for keeping America’s lights on. And there is no greater national security imperative than this: At stake is every institution in our society. And an obvious example exists right here in real time. It’s the continued operation of our hospitals during this COVID-19 pandemic. And similar crises that we face from time to time. And to the extent that our strategy helps strengthen our civilian industry, it also ensures that this energy source will be there in the future to help keep the power on all across our beautiful nation. But in addition to keeping the electricity flowing, there are at least three very specific and direct ways that this strategy will improve our national security.
“First, the strategy, if it’s fully implemented, will help ensure that we meet tomorrow’s needs for defending our country. By any measure, America has a well-defined defense need that greatly depends upon a healthy fuel cycle. And, more specifically, an abundant uranium supply. Although our near-term needs as a country are accounted for, a viable uranium industry mitigates risks to future supply chains.
“Now, besides supporting our defense needs, the second way this strategy promotes national security is by enhancing our foreign policy relationships. And the problem that we face there is clear. As they pursue nuclear power to meet their energy needs, countries around the world, many of them holding positions of geopolitical importance to the United States, are turning to Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises to obtain the technology and fuel that they need to meet their energy needs. This is especially worrisome, since both Russia and China seek powerful leverage over these nations, be it economic or otherwise. So in matters of foreign policy, [these nations] can be compelled to serve both the interests of Moscow and Beijing. Responding to this danger, our strategy calls for strengthening U.S. export competitiveness by increasing efficiencies in the export processes to open new markets for exports of U.S. technologies, equipment, and fuel.
“And finally, the strategy that we have introduced will not only enhance our national security by strengthening our supply chain and countering our foes on foreign policy, it will advance our goal of preventing an increase in nuclear weapons around the globe. And here’s what I mean by that. Our nation’s credibility, as a supporter of nonproliferation, depends upon a robust civilian industry and our technological leadership in the global marketplace.
“In short, if our industry cannot compete in the international market, our commitment to influence global nonproliferation, security, and the safety standards that we all advocate loses credibility. Clearly, our strategy of applying technological innovation in/and advanced research and development investments to strengthen American leadership in the next generation of technologies will help all of us meet this undeniable challenge.
Now, more than ever, in my view, in this president’s view, the United States needs a healthy civil nuclear industry to keep us safe, secure, and strong. The strategy that we have presented, the strategy that we have released, we think is the road map that we will follow to meet that challenge.”
In response to a question from Hewitt on Trump’s reaction to the report, Brouillette said, “The president is very excited about it. He’s a guy who is results oriented, so he calls me quite often to ask me how we’re doing with it. And believe me, we’re going to work hard here at the U.S. Department of Energy. We’re going to work closely with our partners in Congress, as well as the other partners we have in the executive branch of government, to ensure that this strategy is effected, implemented, and executed very, very quickly.”
Hamre offers a reality check: "Forgive me for saying this: America is a fading [nuclear] power. France has given up. Germany has given up. The Japanese haven’t really recovered after Fukushima. South Korea, which was growing a considerable nuclear industry, is giving up. So who is left in the world? It’s China, and it’s Russia. These are not champions of nonproliferation. These are not champions of security. . . . America can’t shape the international security environment for our own interests if we become a fading power in nuclear energy. And we are becoming a pale shadow of what we were only 20 years ago. Every month, we’re drifting. And we need a systematic plan, and it needs to have appropriations behind it. We need a systematic plan to start rebuilding our nuclear industry in this country.”
Albright looks to Trump: I would love to see our president give a speech similar to Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech, Kennedy’s moon landing speech, Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech to recognize and convey to the American people, indeed the world, our commitment to nuclear power. The importance of our leadership and our position of sustaining the nuclear industry are vitally important. I’d love seeing him ask for a nuclear industrial capability review. Join DOE, DOD, and the State Department, demand a report in 100 days. . . . We have the technological capabilities, we have the research capabilities. We can do this, but we need to be led by the very top.
Baranwal sums up:“It is evident that this administration is fully committed to nuclear energy as a vital component of our nation’s energy, economic, and national security and in regaining our country’s global leadership in nuclear power. The report . . . lays out a comprehensive strategy that I am confident will strengthen our nation’s nuclear capabilities, advance our technology supremacy, and empower our nonproliferation goals and objectives. The department . . . is moving fast to implement many of the policy recommendations in this report—one of which is recommending continued support for the demonstration of U.S. advanced nuclear technologies.
“Two weeks ago, my office took action on that by launching the advanced reactor demonstration program, or ARDP for short. This program focuses DOE and nonfederal resources on the actual construction of advanced demonstration reactors that are affordable to build and operate. Letters of intent are due by June 11, final proposals are due August 12, so we are moving very quickly through this process. We are also strongly supporting the National Reactor Innovation Center, also known as NRIC, to enable these demonstrations, and the development of the Versatile Test Reactor, or VTR, to ensure that we have an infrastructure that is necessary to support the long-term success of U.S. advanced nuclear technologies.
“The report also recognizes the importance of having a healthy operating fleet of nuclear reactors and the market challenges they are facing currently. . . . The department is currently investigating alternate sources of revenue for the fleet that includes the production of hydrogen, which would benefit not only the transportation sector but also the manufacturing sector.
“In support of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, the Office of Nuclear Energy fiscal year 2021 budget request does include $150 million to establish a uranium reserve. . . in order to support uranium mining and conversion capabilities, as well as to provide a backstop for uranium in the event of a market disruption.
“I’m really confident that U.S. nuclear technologies can and will play a leading role in providing the U.S. and the world with clean, reliable energy for decades to come.”