Why the U.S. should export nuclear power

October 22, 2015, 8:25 PM UTC
Russian Novovoronezh plant, sister project to Turkish first nuclear power plant
NOVOVORONEZH, RUSSIA - MARCH 2: Russias Novovoronezh plant in Voronezh Oblast, central Russia which is a sister project to Turkey's first nuclear power plant, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, is pictured on March 2, 2015. The Novovoronezh nuclear power station is vital to the development of the VVER design. Rosatom, Russias state-run atomic energy corporation, signed an agreement with Turkey in 2011 to build and operate a four-reactor nuclear power plant in the Mersin province on Turkeys Mediterranean coast. Turkey plans to begin the infrastructure construction of the Akkuyu nuclear plant this year. This is a four-reactor facility in the Mersin province on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Power from the nuclear plant will replace about 10 percent of hydrocarbon generated power in Turkey's power mix when it is fully operational. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Photograph by Sefa Karacan — Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursdsay released an operating license for a new nuclear energy facility in Tennessee, marking the first U.S. nuclear energy facility to come online in the 21st century. It also comes at a time when many other U.S. nuclear facilities will be prematurely retired due to cost pressures.

Because other countries, including rapidly growing counties like India, realize the true value of baseload power to supply their economies with clean electricity, they are actually taking steps to grow their nuclear energy capacity. But the United States, which has the most stringent and effective nuclear safety regulations, is missing an opportunity by not exporting its expertise to developing nations like India.

The U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that the global market for nuclear power technology will total $740 billion over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, without changes in U.S. export policy, Russia — and soon, China —could dominate the international nuclear energy market. Setting themselves apart from the United States, both Russia and China view nuclear technology exports as a strategic tool to solidify long-term relations and influence and provide attractive financing for their nuclear energy businesses.

With strategic foresight, the United States, however, could soon close this gap.

The U.S. Department of Energy soon will release a new rule that will streamline an inefficient process for approval to export U.S. nuclear energy technology to the international market.

Exporting American nuclear technology and expertise will strengthen the U.S. role in setting international industry standards for nuclear power safety and security.

In the face of Russian and Chinese competition, U.S. companies will need the unified support of the administration and Congress. Taking steps like introducing a new rule to modernize the export rules for U.S. nuclear energy technology should go hand-in-hand with reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank provides the nuclear energy industry and scores of other companies of all sizes with financial guarantees similar to export credit provided by most other governments.

Competition with Russia in the nuclear energy technology industry will continue to be an issue as Asian and European nations look for carbon-free energy options like nuclear power. With EU countries facing a self-imposed standard to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, Russian companies with the full backing of Putin’s regime are expanding into nuclear power projects across Eastern Europe.

Beyond Europe, nations like Argentina, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Africa are building or looking to build nuclear power facilities. For many nations, current international market conditions drive partnerships with Russian suppliers.

We are particularly worried that Russia is using nuclear energy to increase its diplomatic ties with Egypt as well. The two nations recently announced a new plan for Russia to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. This partnership should concern Americans as Russia’s Lukoil already produces more than one sixth of Egypt’s energy, giving them a significant foothold in the Middle East.

China isn’t far behind Russia in the nuclear energy exports game. With plans to add four to six reactors every year for the next five years, China is looking to rapidly expand its domestic nuclear power program as demand for energy increases. All signs indicate China that has plans to parlay this domestic program into an international nuclear exports program to rival Russia’s.

This is not just about competition: it is important that the best nuclear power technology available is provided to the international market, and that means that top-tier nuclear power manufacturers like Westinghouse and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy should be the world’s leaders.

By supporting U.S. nuclear energy technology in the international marketplace, the U.S. can ensure control, quality and safety over development and the supply chain for projects in countries that lack the industry experience.

The U.S. must make it a priority to engage with countries developing nuclear power programs to ensure best practices and oversight that encourage and support nonproliferation goals.

Further, we should understand the long-term implications of countries relying on China’s or Russia’s supply chain for construction, fuel and on-going technical support. It’s time to provide a safer alternative on the international market. By supporting U.S. nuclear energy exports, Congress and the administration can ensure national security in the vital areas of nonproliferation, diplomacy and the environment.

Christine Todd Whitman is co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a national grassroots organization that supports nuclear energy. She is a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Stephen Cheney is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Security Project. He served as the Inspector General of the Marine Corps and was the Commanding General of Parris Island Recruit Depot.

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