Nuclear in America is on a cusp between two very different paths. One path leads to continued global leadership. The other leads to a slow fading of our nuclear program to that of a third-rate power, leaving Russia and China to lead the world.
The American Nuclear Society wrapped up its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. earlier this month and these paths, plus other critical issues, were front and center.
The need to maintain America’s leadership in nuclear is clearer than ever before, not just to have any hope of reigning in the worst of global warming and to prevent weapons proliferation, but to ensure that our outstanding nuclear safety record is replicated everywhere else on earth.
Given that the global nuclear power industry is set to expend over $1.5 trillion by 2030, it certainly is important that the United States maintains itself as a leader in this field.
We have the largest, safest and the most effective nuclear program in the world. Our nuclear power program, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and our non-proliferation statutes have set the norms and expectations for the world. And the world is generally following them.
The United States also has the largest and best trained and educated nuclear community in the world, over 150,000 professionals and workers spread out among government, academia and industry.
However, it’s critical to attract students and young scientists to take over as we oldsters pass on to the great reactor in the sky. If we do not, then our scientific will may fade as much as our political will.
The International Atomic Energy Agency declared recently that the global nuclear power industry needs to accelerate growth to satisfy the world’s energy demands and to meet any useful climate change goals.
A loss of American leadership would have far-reaching ramifications.
While Putin is trying to bully his way into being the most powerful man on earth, China’s President Xi Jinping will probably take that position, now that he has consolidated power in China’s new Politburo Standing Committee to help him rule the world’s most populous country for another five years.
Besides having the world’s largest floating solar power plant, the largest water project in history and being set to launch the largest emissions trading system, China has 22 nuclear reactors under construction and is breaking ground on a new nuclear power plant every month.
China plans to have about 400 nuclear reactors by mid-century, dwarfing all other nations. They recently fired up a new-design fast reactor, the kind that will eventually burn old spent nuclear fuel. They are close to completing their first offshore nuclear reactor.
China is also putting a larger version of our post-WWII Marshall Plan in place, called the “One Belt, One Road” project, to bring Asia and Africa into their sphere of influence and away from ours. In addition, China is building a new generation of small tactical nuclear weapons.
On the other side, Russia is succeeding at gaining political and economic influence and control over its old Soviet satellites, and buying up uranium interests in Kazakstan (the real reason for the U.S.-Russia uranium deal).
It is also building new tactical nuclear weapons, and is completing a floating nuclear power plant, which should be operational within a year. It’s sad we didn’t have one on hand to send to Puerto Rico.
Russia is bent on becoming the major supplier of nuclear technology in the world, especially to emerging countries. Its share of the market is now 60 percent. Russia has contracts to build 34 reactors in 13 countries, and it provides nuclear fuel, supplies and technical cooperation to another seven.
America, on the other hand, seems disengaged.
We have no contracts to build nuclear plants in any other country, although we provide some supplies, scientific and engineering consulting and safety planning to many.
Instead, we’re struggling just to keep perfectly good nuclear reactors in our own country from being shut down prematurely, because politics, warped market forces, cheap natural gas and subsidies for renewables are making them slightly less profitable over the short-term.
This, despite nuclear being our main weapon against global warming, the only energy source immune to extreme weather and the fact that closing them early costs Americans money and doesn’t solve whatever the anti-nukes think it will solve.
These retiring nuclear plants are all being replaced with natural gas plants, not renewables, so closing them doesn’t add anything to our environmental or energy security and makes a mockery of our climate goals.
Short-term thinking of this magnitude is the opposite of what a Great Nation needs to do.
If we do not re-energize our nuclear program, we will not lead in climate action nor in nuclear non-proliferation — and we will be throwing away a century of global leadership.
Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/jamesconca.