Back from the Brink: A Threatened Nuclear Energy Industry Compromises National Security
July 17, 2018
The U.S. commercial nuclear energy industry helps the U.S. government meet several key national security objectives. But the industry is struggling to survive. We are not the first to say this and we will not be the last.
We are also not the first to call for U.S. government support for this struggling industry—but this call to action is different. We are urging U.S. government action—not with the focus of protecting the commercial sector, but with a focus to protect U.S. government interests impacted by the decline in the commercial nuclear energy sector. This is a key distinction and warrants attention at the highest level of government. This paper is not intended for those in the nuclear energy industry. They know the issues. It is intended for the U.S. government and the U.S. public—to explain the reasons why U.S. government action is critical at this moment, and to explain how we can move forward in a manner that best protects our country’s national security.
But what are these national security objectives and how are U.S. government and national security interests undermined by a decline in the commercial nuclear energy sector? In this paper we explain the critical importance of the U.S. commercial nuclear energy industry in support of U.S. defense, research, economics, geopolitics, and international nonproliferation. We walk through how the U.S. commercial nuclear energy industry arose out of and with the support of the U.S. government—and how President Eisenhower’s reasons for bringing nuclear energy to the world in the 1950s are the very same reasons that the United States needs to continue to do so today. We unravel the web of interconnections between the commercial nuclear energy industry and achieving U.S. government and national security goals. And we explain the impact that a declining commercial nuclear energy sector has on achieving those crucial goals.
Moreover, we set forth a recommended path forward to come “back from the brink” and preserve critical commercial nuclear energy sector assets—including technology, knowhow, people, and influence—before they are lost forever, and U.S. national security is damaged as a result.
This industry must survive—and it can if the U.S. government and private industry work together, recognizing the government and civilian integrated nuclear infrastructure moving forward. Notably, the response must be U.S. government led to take the approach that is best for the country, rather than any particular company or technology. We recommend five core U.S.-government-led actions to move forward that focus.
- Form a Nuclear Leadership Program as a central government resource to kick-start a new public-private partnership to grow the U.S. nuclear power industry. This new U.S. body should centralize the multitude of U.S. agencies that work with the nuclear industry. While working with private-sector support, the program should be U.S. government led.
- Form a Nuclear Energy Advisory Council, generally composed of current and former business and engineering executives, and U.S. government leaders, to advise the president and National Security Council on the commercial nuclear industry, mirrored after the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC).
- Use the Nuclear Leadership Program and the Nuclear Energy Advisory Council to Drive Forward Critical Domestic Nuclear Energy Industry Policy Changes: These include (i) supporting the completion of our present nuclear projects under construction, (ii) readying the next wave of U.S.-origin advanced reactors, and (iii) developing a “ready reserve” option for some U.S. stressed nuclear plants.
- Use the Nuclear Leadership Program and the Nuclear Energy Advisory Council to Drive Forward Important International Nuclear Energy Industry Policy Changes: These include (i) creating a framework for a joint “USA, Inc.” public-private partnership for international new-build nuclear projects, and (ii) marketing the benefits of the U.S. regulatory framework and nonproliferation regime abroad.
- Look at the Saudi Nuclear New-Build RFP as a Potential Turnaround Opportunity and Test Case. The U.S. industry has an opportunity to regain some of its lost ground with one of the biggest potential nuclear new-build opportunities in the world—a 16-reactor project currently contemplated in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government will need to work together and with industry to succeed here if the project moves forward. The United States also needs to align to resolve the underlying policy issues associated with the project. This cooperation between government and industry—to operate as “USA, Inc.”—can serve as a model and test case for future bids around the world.
Michael Wallace serves as a member of the Emirates Nuclear energy Corporation's (ENEC) Board of Directors. Amy Roma is a partner at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. Sachin Desai is an associate at the law firm of Hogan Lovells.