Congress Jumpstarts America’s Nuclear Geopolitical Power

It’s Deja Vu all over again as the Congress prods a hesitant executive branch to effectively deal with glaring global nuclear challenges.

The last time this happened was in 1991, when then Senators Nunn and Lugar imposed on a reluctant Bush administration a program to control post-Soviet “loose nukes.” That evolved into one of the most successful nuclear security efforts in history.

This time it's Senators Risch and Manchin who have introduced necessary bipartisan legislation to reduce the influence of Russia and China in global civil nuclear commerce and strengthen U.S. and allied nation positioning on international nuclear exports. The Biden administration would be wise to quickly embrace this bill and implements its policies.

The concerns of the Senators are very clear. Neither Russia nor China can be allowed to dominate international civil nuclear trade. The U.S. must work with its allies to develop an export strategy that prevents this outcome.

As Risch notes, the global security stakes are high. Reestablishing American leadership in nuclear energy is critical for “global standards for nonproliferation and other national security interests.”

Manchin states, “Russia and China aggressively use their state-owned and operated civil nuclear programs as coercive tools to the detriment of other nations’ energy security and our global nonproliferation efforts.”

In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, energy security has exploded back onto the global agenda as nations flee from dependency on Russian oil and gas. Around the world, interest in nuclear power is growing in part because it accounts for more than 50% of the carbon free electricity generation in large, industrialized nations including, the U.S., France, and South Korea and offers energy security.

The core of the senator’s demands is the establishment of a White House office and senior-level staff that will coordinate overall U.S. civil nuclear cooperation and export strategy. The office reports directly to the President.

This is a necessary position that the current administration has been reluctant to establish. The legislation identifies the disparate elements of an effective nuclear export strategy that need to be pulled together. These include private-public financing, regulatory harmonization, enhanced safeguards and security, and a standardized licensing framework.

These issues aren’t new, and they are not being ignored by the responsible government agencies. But that’s the problem. There are a number of different agencies that are working on the component parts. They are coordinating with one another, but a coherent and effective strategy has yet to emerge, and the White House hasn’t prioritized this outcome.

Further, this export strategy needs to be synched with the major advanced nuclear energy technology program that aims to have “fully functional” next-generation reactor by 2027. And it needs to be paired with a much more aggressive and effective diplomatic and technical outreach effort to potential purchasing nations of these next-gen reactors.

The foundation for the success of the Risch-Manchin approach has been laid by the deep damage Russia has done to its own nuclear industry’s dominance of the current international reactor market.

Russia’s access to the financial capital and the supply chains required to complete existing plants under contract, is being severely curtailed by the response to the Ukraine invasion. It’s attack on Ukraine’s civil nuclear power plants have made it a global security pariah. Its potential customers are recoiling from purchase agreements. But China is waiting in the wings with its hot nuclear production lines and numerous Belt and Road tentacles.

The one area where Russia is still in control is the supply of global nuclear fuel. Here the legislation proposes the creation of a U.S. Nuclear Fuels Security Initiative which is designed to increase the domestic production of low-enriched and high-assay low-enriched uranium fuels for existing and future reactors.

As a forcing mechanism for progress, the Senators propose a biennial summit on nuclear safety, security, safeguards, and sustainability paired with a nuclear vendor exhibition. This proposal echoes the Obama-era Nuclear Security Summits which led to many new and valuable milestones.

Sometimes it is difficult for the executive branch to peer beyond its daily crises and commitments to see how the global landscape is shifting and what new responses are needed. That’s not ineffectiveness it’s the obscuring fog of daily business and entrenched operating procedures. The Congress has the capacity to look over the horizon.

When the Soviet Union fell and its communist-designed nuclear control system split open, the Congress responded with a then-radical new approach of cooperating with our former enemy to corral loose nukes. With the rising importance of nuclear technology as a global clean energy force and a source of geopolitical competition, the Congress is again offering an effective roadmap to respond to new realities. This time it’s to contain the dangerous ambitions of our authoritarian nuclear energy competitors.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security