The Role of U.S. Nuclear Power in the 21st Century

The Role of U.S. Nuclear Power in the 21st Century

This policy paper on the role of U.S. nuclear power in the 21st century is co-authored by me and my colleagues, Josh Darnell and Josh Massey, both of whom are with the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. It’s due out in the December issue of The Electricity Journal. Here’s a link to the In-Press version. What follows in this blog post is a summary of our conclusions and policy recommendations.

In the paper, we propose one broad question:

“Should the U.S. nuclear power sector be left to market forces alone to dictate the fate of nuclear energy in the U.S., or is the U.S. nuclear power sector of such vital national interest that the U.S. should develop a comprehensive and strategic nuclear policy that ensures a robust civilian nuclear power enterprise?”

Our contention is that a strategic nuclear power policy is a national security imperative. We base this on the original principles of nuclear power policy makers who comprehended the reality that nuclear energy is not merely another energy commodity, such as coal, natural gas, solar and wind. Rather, these policymakers recognized that nuclear energy is a fundamentally different energy resource with implications that extend far beyond the geographic borders of the U.S. and are capable of reshaping the geopolitical contours of the world order. As such, we contend in the paper that U.S. policymakers must develop a strategic U.S. policy for nuclear science, engineering and technology that:

  • Acknowledges the U.S. civilian nuclear power sector as a vital national security interest whose future should be governed by U.S. policy and not by market forces alone;
  • Leverages market forces and competition as a means for developing the most advanced and cost-efficient nuclear technologies;
  • Maintains and extends (where feasible) the life span of the current U.S. nuclear fleet;
  • Establishes a robust, politically-resilient public-private partnership that can be sustained across election cycles in order to stand up a long-term nuclear research and development program around advanced light-water reactors, small modular reactors, fast reactors, molten salt reactors, fuel reprocessing and advanced fuels such as thorium and high-assay low-enriched uranium; and
  • Seeks to re-establish U.S. competitiveness in international nuclear development partnerships as a means of responding to the challenge of Chinese and Russian state-owned nuclear enterprises.

In general, we contend that the U.S. nuclear power sector is of such vital national security interest that it is too strategic to be allowed to fail due to market forces alone (Gattie, 2018a). While competing nations such as China and Russia are standing up their own nuclear enterprises with strategic nuclear policies, the approach to nuclear power in the U.S. is largely transactional in nature and lacks a strategic purview. We further contend that markets are not policy and cannot substitute for policy as pertains to nuclear energy. We further contend that modern-day nuclear policy must embody original nuclear policy principles established in the 1940s and 1950s—principles that stipulated the U.S. would be engaged as global experts in the international control of the nuclear supply chain and that the U.S. would maintain a robust, world-class nuclear research and development program. Moreover, U.S. policy should be comprehensive such that it broadens nuclear research and development to include molten salt reactors, fast reactors, advanced fuels and technologies for closing the nuclear fuel cycle. To accomplish this, a public-private partnership should be developed as the means to establish a vibrant nuclear research and development enterprise, to respond to the global competition of China and Russia and to balance their geopolitical aspirations in Asia and the Middle East (Gattie, 2018b).

The history and legacy of U.S. leadership in nuclear power and nuclear power policy, a legacy that was earned and established in the 20th century, continues to be of vital U.S. interest today. As such, early policy principles should be understood and integrated into U.S. deliberations today. Otherwise, the stature and influence of the U.S. in the 21st century global cycle of nuclear science, engineering and technology won’t be what it was in the 20th century.


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