Analysis & Opinions - Medium

Two Reasons to Restore American Nuclear Leadership

| March 30, 2016

Over the next four weeks, world leaders will gather to confront two existential threats. On March 31, they will join forces in Washington to step up the fight against nuclear terrorism. On April 22, they will assemble in New York to sign the Paris agreement to fight climate change.

While these threats call for a complex web of tough responses, one common thread runs through them: both would benefit from strengthened American leadership in nuclear energy.

Start with climate change. The historic Paris agreement sets an ambitious target to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But scientists agree that even if all 188 national commitments under that pact are fully implemented, we will miss that mark by more than 2°C.

Meeting the rising global demand for energy while simultaneously cutting carbon emissions will not be easy. By 2050, meeting the Paris targets would require the world to cut carbon emissions by up to 70 percent while producing 70 percent more electricity. Even granting ambitious roles for efficiency, renewable energy, and carbon capture and sequestration, the International Energy Agency concludes that averting the worst consequences of climate change will require more than doubling the world’s nuclear energy capacity over the next 20 years.

Today, nearly 70 reactors are under construction, with the global nuclear footprint shifting east to such places as China, India, Russia, South Korea, and the UAE. In Europe, only the UK is ambitiously pursuing new build. In the United States five reactors are under construction — the first new commercial units in 30 years — but four have been shut down and many more stand at risk.

If the United States resumed a more robust role in the expansion of nuclear power — whether through current generation technology, small modular reactors, or both — it could remain at the cutting edge of global efforts both to fulfill post-Fukushima standards for nuclear safety and to require the most stringent controls against the threat of the diversion of nuclear talent, technology, or materials to terrorists or hostile nations.

To be sure, for the United States to rejoin the ranks of dynamic leaders in nuclear energy will require determined effort to address a number of perennial challenges: economics, safety, security, and radioactive waste. The economics of nuclear power would benefit from the imposition of a price on carbon, regulatory reform, or compensating reactors for their unique ability to supply reliable base-load power even when Mother Nature knocks fossil or renewable plants off the grid.

The other key issues — safety, security, and waste — will yield to best practices that by now are quite familiar, but where American participation can and should reinforce international efforts to grapple with the same challenges.

Restoring America’s commitment to world leadership in nuclear technology would also make us safer in other ways. Compared to the gradual harm inflicted by climate change, the consequences of nuclear terrorism would be immediate. If violent jihadists of ISIS or another terrorist group build or otherwise acquire a nuclear weapon, who doubts that they would gladly use it to slaughter innocent civilians? A single nuclear warhead detonated in a major city would wreak devastation that could dwarf all terror attacks in the history of the world combined.

Our ability to detect and prevent nuclear terrorism depends on our technological leadership — leadership that has steadily eroded in recent decades as the United States stopped building new reactors, shut down reactors and fuel cycle facilities, and reduced its investment in the next generation of scientists and engineers who will develop advanced nuclear technologies to meet these challenges.

Moreover, every time the United States exports nuclear fuel or nuclear reactors, we export the strong nonproliferation standards that have resulted from decades of bipartisan Presidential and Congressional commitments to minimize the risk of the spread of nuclear weapons.

We need to reverse that slide. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, U.S. advice, technology and skills have contributed to peaceful nuclear energy programs the world over. That leadership — which now stands at risk — has been a cornerstone of America’s non-proliferation efforts since President Eisenhower. Now it is more important than ever before.

The five reactors under construction in the United States today, combined with the four U.S.-designed reactors under construction in China, will not be enough to right the ship. Restoring U.S. leadership in nuclear technologies will require sound, long-term government policies that in turn will support sustained commitment in the private sector. We need to accelerate our effort for the good of the planet and our own long-term safety. Given the stakes, it can and must be done.

Daniel Poneman is an energy and national security policy expert. He is a former Deputy Secretary of Energy and President and CEO of Centrus Energy.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Poneman, Daniel.“Two Reasons to Restore American Nuclear Leadership.” Medium, March 30, 2016.

The Author