Among the new realities in the 21st Century, we face challenges that are created by aggressive, state-backed international competitors, Russia and China.
Traditional nuclear suppliers, including the U.S. and its allies, have primarily written the current safety, security and non-proliferation rules. But, they are in the process of losing ground on nuclear commerce to new nuclear suppliers, Russia and soon China, whose nuclear ambitions are state-backed and integrated into their strategic and geopolitical objectives.
Russia is aggressively marketing its nuclear technology abroad.
Its Build, Own, Operate and Return of spent fuel is very attractive to newcomer nations. But it is only possible because it is backed by state financing. No private company can afford to offer that deal, as evidenced by the fact that no private company is offering that deal. Newcomers dealing with Russia have commented that they would prefer to deal with the U.S. for a variety of reasons including technological superiority relationship building, and regulatory support. But, the U.S. is having trouble closing 123 agreements and its nuclear export industry is ailing.
China is poised to become the Amazon.com of nuclear commerce in this century.
By 2026, China is projected to overtake the United States as the world’s top nuclear power generating nation – making it the largest global nuclear operator and market. But initially, it is also a leading nuclear nation with the least cumulative number of years of experience compared to other major nations.
Along with its domestic expansion—20 reactors under construction and 40 more planned – China is seeking to build nuclear plants in emerging economy nations and long-standing nuclear states. It also is working hard on advanced reactor concepts, including a high-temperature gas reactor that may lead the pack in the race for commercialization. And, China has shown that it will not play by the rules in attempting to capture this market, as it has been credibly accused of spying to gain an edge.
One of our key allies – South Korea – is in a state of confusion about its future civil nuclear program and exports. Limiting or eliminating the role of South Korea - one of the U.S.’ critical and responsible partners in the civil nuclear field - will have significant political, economic, climate and international security implications.
These are very serious issues for the entire global community.
Nuclear operation and supply are special responsibilities. If there is an accident or terrorist attack, radiation does not respect borders. Standards must be strong to existing challenges and new developments. Suppliers and operators must be responsible. The impacts of Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were body blows to the global nuclear industry and public confidence. Another major accident or nuclear terrorist event could be a death knell for the industry.
In the face of these new realities, the U.S. is not facing the choice of whether to lead or follow. Its choice is to lead or cede – as in cede the international nuclear playing field to Russia and China.
If the U.S. does not rapidly and actively reinvigorate its global civil nuclear strategy and become a stronger player in the export market, it will still be left with the responsibility and the bill for managing the consequences – i.e. Iraq, North Korea or Iran. In one way or another, all three of those nuclear programs have cost the U.S. a fortune to date – and the U.S. was not the original supplier of the technology for any of these countries.
Part of the answer to this situation is that there needs to be much better leadership and strategic thinking at the federal level in the U.S. At the moment, a significant component of our civil nuclear strategy has been outsourced to state legislatures and governors. State capitols, as a general rule, focus on the price of electricity and jobs, not the geostrategic value of the nuclear assets of their states.
There needs to be a clear recognition of the significant implications for the country of continued technical superiority in this area and its corollary implications for the domestic economy, workforce and employment, environmental objectives, and global nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation standards. This is the package that matters.
“I worry about the nuclear geopolitics gap that is emerging between the U.S., and Russia and China."
– Kenneth Luongo, President of the Partnership for Global Security
They are thinking strategically about their global interests and relationships. They are backing their efforts with government support for nuclear power projects. We do not seem to be thinking strategically and are asking private companies to compete with their own resources on a severely tilted playing field.”
Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security
Photo Credit: Lena Bell