Yes, The Vogtle Decision Has National Security Implications:
Will Georgia Keep Its Word?
“I have recalled this [nuclear energy] history to emphasize the fact that decisions about the peacetime development of nuclear energy have not, cannot and probably should not be made on the basis of strict economic realism.” (Henry DeWolf Smyth, Manhattan Project, Atomic Energy Commission, IAEA U.S. Ambassador, 1956, Foreign Affairs)
As the decision on whether to move forward with the construction of Units 3&4 at Plant Vogtle remains up in the air, at least through today, it’s worth putting this issue in the broader context it deserves. And that broader context is U.S. national security.
In the 1940s and 1950s, America took the calculated yet necessary risks to develop the premier nuclear research and development program in the world. The reason being, America faced a formidable competitor in the Soviet Union and early nuclear policy decision makers understood what was at stake if they allowed short-term economics or the fear of setbacks to prevent the U.S. from establishing itself as the global leader in nuclear energy. Indeed, the decisions made by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations during those unprecedented times in U.S. history required a political resolve that, arguably, has few equals.
Those decisions to follow through on a difficult task have afforded the United States 24 trillion kWhrs of reliable, zero-emission electricity since 1969. This is equivalent to six years of total U.S. electricity and over 800 million metric tons of CO2 annually (Figure 1) and there is no existing technology with the capabilities of substituting for this.
Fast forward to today and the U.S. still faces formidable competitors in nuclear power development in the countries of China (Figure 2) and Russia, and it remains a national security imperative that the U.S. not be surpassed in nuclear science, engineering and technology.
U.S. national interests were fundamental to President Obama’s original rationale for revitalizing U.S. nuclear power and providing the loan guarantees for Vogtle so it’s only right that those national interests be part of the decision on completing these reactors. National security concerns related to Vogtle remain as evidenced by DOE’s direct and emphatic statement to the Vogtle partners that their decision “will have a profound impact on the U.S. nuclear industry and a reputational mark on the ability of American industry to complete important and complex industrial projects”.
The state of Georgia is facing its most critical energy decision in a decade–if not in its history. In doing so, it must deal with the realities of an energy future that will be carbon-constrained and require reliable baseload power to make up for the loss in coal capacity. It must deal with the reality that a carbon tax is almost a political certainty and that solar is its only viable renewable energy resource. It must deal with the reality that to abandon Vogtle will be to relegate the grid for future generations of Georgians to one that is predominantly dependent on natural gas, thus price volatilities. It must also deal with the reality that it has made a commitment and a promise to doing its part in revitalizing the U.S. nuclear industry as a matter of addressing climate change and as a matter of national security.
The generations preceding us didn’t quit and they didn’t withdraw because of the economic challenges of developing nuclear power. They held firm, maintained their resolve and brokered the conversation with the public that nuclear power was necessary to meet national security objectives. This is all the more critical today because of climate change and the need for a reliable grid to sustain economic growth.
The leading quote in this post is by Henry DeWolf Smyth, one of the original nuclear power policy makers in the 1940s and 195os. Dr. Smyth’s wisdom remains good guidance for us to today–that being, we cannot and probably should not allow economics alone to hinder us from doing what is necessary for the U.S. to be the global leader in nuclear energy…too much was at stake in Dr. Smyth’s day, and too much is at stake in our day.
If Georgia defaults on its commitment to complete these reactors, it will be reneging on its promise to help revitalize the U.S. nuclear sector and its original commitment to the national security interests of U.S. nuclear power. Moreover, it will be kicking the can down the road to the next generation, signaling to them that we opted for doing what’s easy for our generation rather than what’s best for their generation and beyond.