Building Back a Better Civil Nuclear Strategy

Nuclear power is never going to be at the top of the Biden administration’s list of the climate change solutions to achieve emissions-free electricity status by 2035. But it should be one of the key technology and policy pillars that the new administration aggressively builds out.

Not just because nuclear energy now provides over 50% of the carbon-free electricity in the U.S. But because the civil nuclear enterprise is increasingly about much more than limiting greenhouse gasses.

Along with clean energy expansion, the other key issues - global technological competitiveness, geopolitical influence, alliance relations, nonproliferation, and international security – comprise a new nuclear-climate-global security nexus.

Recognizing the growing importance of this issue intersection, over the past 4 years the U.S. government has established a bipartisan foundation of legislation and action designed to strengthen U.S. nuclear competitiveness. That work needs to be preserved and extended.

The actions taken so far have not transformed the position of the U.S. in the international nuclear commerce and leadership marketplace. There are numerous additional and difficult steps that are required. And the next several years will be critical in determining whether the country can reemerge as a major civil nuclear force.

U.S. political enthusiasm for next-generation, smaller nuclear reactors has been an important accelerant in the process so far. It is fueling regulatory innovation, making financing available, and pushing forward the demonstration of a handful of new technologies by mid-decade.   

But there is concern about whether the ambitious timetables can be met by a fragmented government that, so far, has not been aggressive in connecting all the relevant dots.

The failure to create a cohesive, multidimensional civil nuclear strategy will have important international consequences, including potentially locking in Russian and Chinese dominance over the global nuclear market. This is an important challenge that the new administration will need to confront, in part because the U.S. has vowed not to allow it to occur.

Creating a comprehensive, integrated, and effective strategy will not be an easy task. There are many moving parts that need to be synched, including: demonstrating technology and cost effectiveness; designing effective regulations and licensing; cultivating and supporting export markets; engaging nations in nuclear cooperation MOU’s and agreements; rebuilding reliable supply chains; mitigating nonproliferation and global security dangers; managing coordination and competition with allies; and convincing skeptics of the importance and value.

These requirements cut across government agencies and responsibilities and organizing among deeply entrenched silos will be an uphill battle. Rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs may work, but probably not as a first step. Past experience indicates that task forces and agency upheaval are time consuming and distracting.

Building a better civil nuclear capability is something that can be done under the existing bureaucratic structure if it is identified as a presidential priority and a disciplined process is run out of the White House. Once there is some serious momentum, reorganization may be in order to further progress.

Early momentum is vital because ceding the international nuclear market to two authoritarian governments that are major geopolitical and technical competitors of the U.S. and its allies will be a serious mistake that is difficult to reverse.

For one thing, the stakes for global nuclear non-proliferation and security are very high. The next-generation of nuclear technology is going to require that safeguards and security requirements and recommendations evolve from their current forms. And the likely market for these reactors is largely going to be in volatile regions and among nations inexperienced in nuclear operation. One need only look at Saudi Arabia’s repeated commitment to arm itself with nuclear weapons if Iran achieves that capability to understand the combustible circumstances that exist in one region that is busy building nuclear infrastructure.

Past experience indicates that the most successful nuclear vendor nations have the most influence in developing the nuclear governance regime. So, democratic governments must have products that work for their clean energy needs at home and appeal to nuclear-interested nations abroad if they want to have significant sway over the next iteration of nuclear governance.

These allied nations also need to get on the same page regarding the role of nuclear power going forward. Along with the U.S., two other nations are clearly converging on the value of nuclear energy. Canada has made a significant commitment to small modular reactors. The U.K. has just announced a green industrial revolution that includes among its top ten priorities, “the next generation of small and advanced reactors.” Two other nations, Japan and South Korea, have the technical capabilities, research and development infrastructure, and active supply chains to be major players, but currently are limited in the role they can play because of domestic political constraints.  

The Biden administration is going to be aggressive in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions and one element of that will be nuclear energy. But, that technology is not just a clean power source. It has multidimensional implications for international security. That climate-nuclear-security nexus requires that a comprehensive strategy be built from the beginning.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security