PONI Debates the Issues Blog

The Strategic Importance of Nuclear Energy

The United States currently does not lack energy supplies. Far removed from high oil prices in 2008, the natural gas bubble has depressed fossil fuel costs and put substantial economic pressure on other energy sources. Nuclear energy, in particular, has felt the stress more than other alternative energy supplies: it was not included in the list of “Qualified Renewable Energy” sources in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, and has only recently received status as a carbon-free source of energy in New York and Illinois. As nuclear power plants look to close—or not extend their operating licenses— ideas of a U.S. nuclear energy renaissance are now under significant threat. This is contrary to American interests. Participation in the world’s nuclear economy could provide the United States opportunities for economic investment, the ability to influence safety and security practices, and political capital in partner nations. Without a robust nuclear industry of its own, the United States must leave these advantages to other nations.

On a global scale, however, nuclear energy is expanding, both in countries using nuclear and in raw generating capacity. In the United Arab Emirates—hardly energy poor in its own right—construction on a $20 billion, Korean-built nuclear power plant began in 2012. The final complex will be capable of putting out 5.6 gigawatts of electrical power and the first of its four reactors is expected to go online later this year. In Britain, the Hinkley Point C project has broken ground and is expected to pump 3.2 gigawatts into the British grid by 2025. Also worth noting, China has a 33% stake in Britain’s £18 billion project, which could provide 7% of the island’s power. Within its borders, China has 20 reactors under construction, set to join the 37 already operational. India has five reactors under construction, and Russia seven—not including Novovoronezh II’s Unit I, which in February became the first operational Gen III+ reactor in the world.

These civil nuclear developments represent the long game in the energy sector. The economic advantages to countries that can export nuclear energy supplies will be substantial. Some estimate that the nuclear market has an estimated value of $1.4 trillion. One of the plants China is building is a pilot-size, 200-megawatt electric advanced reactor, using helium coolant, designed to provide new technical expertise. This ties in nicely with China’s long-term goal of becoming a powerhouse in the world nuclear market. Moreover, involvement in energy infrastructure can enhance provider states’ sticks in the realm of foreign policy—as various oil and gas embargoes have demonstrated in the past—increasing states’ coercive influence in the international system. Russia, for example, will go out of its way to provide nuclear energy for interested states—then control their fuel and operationChina has also been classed as a keen wielder of its state-owned industries, including energy, for political advantage. It also follows that efficient, advanced reactors will be a source of geopolitical force in the near future.

America has historically lead the international community in the nuclear energy sector, with a record of safe operating hours second to none, and an excellent safety culture. It is clearly in U.S. interests that nuclear energy used around the world is employed with a similar focus on safety and materials security, achieved by influence in the market. As the Hon. Gottemoeller remarked, when we export our nuclear technology, we export our safety and security practices. This is, however, predicated on the assumption that other countries are interested in importing U.S. reactor technology. Given the competition, this is not a safe assumption. If the U.S. simply is not in the game, it has no chance to affect the outcome.

It is imperative that the United States takes measures to bolster its nuclear capacity and technological base to influence the international stage. The capacity still exists within the United States to bring new technology and capability to the table: some fifty companies in the United States are working to this end. There is some support from the Department of Energy’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear to develop these technologies. However, it is not enough to have ideas on paper. Actual strategic influence will come from demonstrated technology in the form of operating reactors. This demonstration will not occur while the market and incentives for nuclear energy struggle to keep the current reactor fleet operational. A national policy in support of nuclear energy development is necessary to change this trend: as the Nuclear Energy Institute observes, public-private partnerships are critical for success on the scales that matter. And, as argued above, this is occurring on the state level worldwide. It is only to the United States’ detriment to ignore these developments.

Jeff Graham currently works on countering weapons of mass destruction programs at Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and has previously worked in nuclear weapon safety, security, and policy. He holds an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology.

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The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues. The content of this web site does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense or any sponsor of the Project on Nuclear Issues.