Nuclear in America is on a cusp between two very different paths. One path leads to continued global leadership. The other leads to a slow fading of our nuclear program to that of a third-rate power, leaving Russia and China to lead the world.
The American Nuclear Society wrapped up its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. yesterday and these paths, plus other critical issues, were front and center. American Nuclear Society President Bob Coward set the stage with a strong call to arms.
The need to maintain America’s leadership in nuclear is clearer than ever before. Not just to have any hope of reigning in the worst of global warming and to prevent weapons proliferation, but to ensure our outstanding nuclear safety record is replicated everywhere else on Earth.
Given that the global nuclear power industry is set to expend over $1.5 trillion by 2030, it certainly is important that the United States maintains itself as a leader in this field. We have the largest, safest and the most effective nuclear program in the world. Our nuclear power program, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and our non-proliferation statutes have set the norms and expectations for the world. And the world is generally following them.
When Bob Coward asked, ‘Do we really want China and Russia filling that nuclear leadership role world-wide?’, the answer was a resounding NO.
The United States also has the largest and best trained and educated nuclear community in the world, over 150,000 professionals and workers spread out among government, academia and industry.
Being among a thousand nuclear professionals is an uplifting experience. If you understand how nuclear works, you understand how the Universe works. That’s why when people get into it, they really appreciate it. And have fun discussing it. It was a wonderful meeting.
However, it’s critical to attract students and young scientists to take over as we oldsters pass on to the great reactor in the sky. If we do not, then our scientific will may fade as much as our political will.
That’s why the theme of this ANS meeting was Generations in Collaboration: Building for Tomorrow. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to educate and train a nuclear scientist, engineer or plant operator. It’s not something you can just decide to do when you need them.
We are not the only ones worried about global nuclear. The International Atomic Energy Agency declared this week that the global nuclear power industry needs to accelerate growth to satisfy the world’s energy demands and to meet any useful climate change goals.
‘More use of nuclear power will be needed to provide the steady supply of baseload electricity to power modern economies if countries are to meet the goals for greenhouse gas emissions which they set for themselves in the Paris Agreement,’ said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.
But the loss of American leadership in nuclear has ramifications far beyond nuclear power. For 50 years, most discussions surrounding the three major powers was who between Russia and China would be second, and who would be third, after America. America becoming third was not even considered.
While Putin is trying to bully his way into being the most powerful man on earth, China’s President Xi Jinping will probably take that position, now that he has consolidated power in China’s new Politburo Standing Committee to help him rule the world’s most populous country for another five years.
Besides having the world’s largest floating solar power plant, the largest water project in history and being set to launch the largest emissions trading system, China has 22 nuclear reactors under construction and is breaking ground on a new nuclear power plant every month.
China plans to have about 400 nuclear reactors by mid-century, dwarfing all other nations. They recently fired up a new-design fast reactor, the kind that will eventually burn old spent nuclear fuel. They are close to completing their first offshore nuclear reactor.
China is also putting a larger version of our post-WWII Marshall Plan in place, called the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, to bring Asia and Africa into their sphere of influence and away from ours. In addition, China is building a new generation of small tactical nuclear weapons.
On the other side, Russia is succeeding at gaining political and economic influence and control over its old Soviet satellites, and is throwing monkey wrenches into the democratic processes of the U.S. and Europe so we will not interfere. Russia is buying up uranium interests in Kazakstan (the real reason for the US-Russia uranium deal), is also building new tactical nuclear weapons, and is completing a floating nuclear power plant, which should be operational within a year. It’s sad that we didn’t have one on hand to send to Puerto Rico.
Russia is bent on becoming the major supplier of nuclear technology in the world, especially to emerging countries. Its share of the market is now 60%. Russia has contracts to build 34 reactors in 13 countries, including India, Nigeria, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Turkey and Jordan, totaling about $300 billion. The last two are American allies. Russia provides nuclear fuel, supplies and technical cooperation to another 7 countries.
Russia is courting these countries with amazing financing opportunities, full scientific and technical support, and even plans for taking back their nuclear waste. Some of the deals, like for India, include possible non-nuclear sophisticated weapons side deals.
Of course, along with these nuclear technologies, comes the Russian safety standards.
America, on the other hand, seems disengaged. We have no contracts to build nuclear plants in any other country, although we provide some supplies, scientific and engineering consulting and safety planning to many.
Instead, we’re struggling just to keep perfectly good nuclear reactors in our own country from being shut down prematurely, because politics, warped market forces, cheap natural gas and subsidies for renewables are making them slightly less profitable over the short-term.
This, despite nuclear being our main weapon against global warming, the only energy source immune to extreme weather and the fact that closing them early costs Americans money and doesn’t solve whatever the anti-nukes think it will solve. These retiring nuclear plants are all being replaced with natural gas plants, not renewables, so closing them doesn’t add anything to our environmental or energy security and makes a mockery of our climate goals.
Short-term thinking of this magnitude is the opposite of what a Great Nation needs to do, the opposite of what we did for most of the 20th century. If we do not re-energize our nuclear program, we will not lead in climate action nor in nuclear non-proliferation. We will throw away a century of global leadership as well as a hundred-thousand high-paying jobs and let Oil&Gas become our nation’s biggest source of energy.
As was on display this week in D.C., the nuclear community is willing and ready to step into this breach and expand our nuclear program to be worthy of the Greatest Nation On Earth.
Nuclear Energy In America Is Teetering On A Cusp – Forbes