Clawing Back Nuclear Markets Requires More Than Rhetoric

The U.S. is talking a good game about the global security importance of wresting the international nuclear market back from the clutches of authoritarian governments. But, despite the uptick in government prioritization, there is not yet a comprehensive and effective strategy for achieving that goal within a realistic window of opportunity.

The global nuclear turf fight is with two of the world’s most ruthless regimes, Russia and China, both of which present significant challenges to U.S. global influence and power. Russia already controls much of the world’s large reactor exports with $133 billion in foreign orders. China is establishing a beachhead for its technology in the U.K. and is currently constructing 4 reactors abroad.

As a recent U.S. government report noted, “the United States is entirely absent from [the] global new build nuclear reactor market with no foreign orders.” That market is estimated at $500-740 billion over the next 10 years.

This absence may be mitigated, as the U.S. is negotiating with Poland and Romania on new large reactors, is still in the running for the perpetually postposed reactor tender of Saudi Arabia, and could pick up the pieces if China makes good on its threat to withdraw from a U.K. nuclear project.

But the future for large reactors is shrinking and the next phase of the nuclear export game is competition over smaller next-generation technologies. This market represents a clean slate for U.S. technologies, competitiveness, and principles. But, achieving control or significant influence in that market will require careful and comprehensive preparation now because reactors could be ready for deployment in a decade. Already, Russia has deployed a floating reactor and China is progressing on its high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed reactor. They will not relent in the fight for future global markets.

It is in the face of this persistent competition that U.S. strategy is showing its fissures. A recent webinar and other discussions have identified several key gaps.

There is no doubt about the dedication of America’s energy and security agencies to the mission of resurrecting the nation’s nuclear competitiveness. There is much more activity now than in the past, and government experts are tackling difficult structural problems. However, two concerns have been identified. One is the need for a more effective weaving of agency activities in a comprehensive “whole of government” plan. The second is that the analytical and diplomatic foundation for the case against Russian and Chinese nuclear technology, and the responsive actions, are weak relative to the rising rhetoric about the danger.

Beyond government, the nascent next-gen reactor industry is fragmented, underfunded, and fiercely competitive. Without a clear strategy supporting deployment, it is focused on developing numerous technologies, hurdling the regulatory process, and identifying sustainable sources of High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel. With those concerns paramount, the industry has less bandwidth to worry about the international requirements and landscape into which its technologies may be deployed. Building that awareness, capacity, and market cultivation is critical but not yet a high U.S. priority.

However, developing an international strategy that prepares the global market for novel nuclear technologies is an essential linchpin in the pivot to market control.  

The nation’s most likely to be interested in these technologies will have small electrical grids, growing populations, and climate change challenges. Small reactor developers are looking for a larger market than traditional providers because the deployments will be distributed and the price per unit is projected to be lower.

The target nations also are nurturing developing economies and wrestling with effective governance. But as the pressure for clean, distributed energy increases, many of them are questioning the need for decades of preparation before obtaining their first reactor. 

This situation mandates creative new thinking about public-private responsibilities, policies, and financing. Exporting nations and vendors are likely going to have to take more responsibility and provide more assistance to newcomer nuclear nations than was the case with previous generations of nuclear technologies. Financing probably will require deeper government involvement and risk mitigation. These evolutions need to be integrated into a sustainable cultivation and support strategy for purchaser nations that can pave the way for safe and secure deployment.

The international strategy also needs to include allied partners that can support both diplomacy and technology. The U.S. nuclear industry by its government’s own assessment is in a weakened condition. Even small reactors that are advancing toward demonstration require foreign technology partners. And as the U.S.-China competition intensifies, and Europe and Canada grow increasingly irritated with China’s arrogance, these allied nations collectively will need to present a more unified front in favor of democratic principles, including strong nuclear governance. 

The U.S. has made an important decision to reverse the erosion of its position in the international nuclear market for valid international security, geopolitical, and economic reasons. It may yet secure a few new large reactor sales, but the real game is in exerting strong control over the next generation reactor market. That window of opportunity is open now, but it will close quickly over the course of the next decade. To strengthen and hold its position for the future, the U.S. needs an effective, comprehensive strategy now. There is a lot of important activity at the moment but still plenty of disconnects that can short-circuit success.