US must regain ground in nuclear energy

Washington Examiner by Drew Bond | March 17, 2018

Energy Secretary Rick Perry testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Commerce, Science, and transportation Committee.
Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner

This is a critical time for the Trump administration, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and our domestic nuclear infrastructure. Our 30-year hiatus in building new reactors coupled with the rise of state-owned competitors abroad has taken a significant toll on the U.S. nuclear industry and has seriously undermined America’s global influence over nonproliferation and other matters.

The pending bankruptcy of America’s flagship nuclear company, Westinghouse Electric, is a canary-in-the-coalmine moment which points to the need to reinvigorate the U.S. nuclear industry.

Although Westinghouse is owned by Toshiba, it is headquartered in Pennsylvania and remains a leader in exporting U.S. nuclear technology to the world while providing critical nuclear infrastructure here at home. Absent Westinghouse, America’s role in global nuclear commerce will be greatly diminished, as will our voice on nonproliferation.

The Westinghouse bankruptcy is part of a larger and often overlooked crisis of America’s nuclear infrastructure, which has been decades in the making.

America used to be the overwhelming leader in designing, building, and fueling nuclear reactors around the world, but no longer. We used to be in a strong position to insist that nations make binding commitments that ensured the technology and fissile material U.S. companies provided them would not be diverted to weapons programs, but no longer.

Unfortunately, in recent years we have ceded this role – along with our influence – to other nations, particularly Russia, China, and Korea. More than a dozen countries have planned or proposed to build new reactors in the coming years. Whether those reactors are designed and built up to U.S. or Russia safety standards is critical, not to mention the geopolitical implications for the world.

But perhaps even the larger story is about our ability, or lack thereof, to produce nuclear fuel. Nuclear fuel capabilities are vital to our domestic “all of the above” energy strategy, as well as our national security. Here, it’s worth noting that the process of producing nuclear fuel involves four major steps, all of which we are in danger of losing.

The first step is uranium mining, which has declined in America by 90% since 1980.

The second step is converting uranium into uranium hexafluoride. America shut down its last remaining uranium conversion facility in November of 2017. The plant operator says the shutdown could be reversed but it is unclear when or if that will happen.

The third step is uranium enrichment, the most difficult and sensitive part of the process. The last American owned enrichment facility closed in 2013, leaving us without domestic enrichment capabilities suitable for national security purposes for the first time in 70 years. There is one enrichment facility operating in New Mexico but that facility is foreign-owned and only meets about a third of our commercial demand and none of our national security needs.

The fourth step is to fabricate the enriched uranium into fuel rods, which brings us back to Westinghouse, one of the largest commercial players in the market — that is, if they can stay alive.

All of this adds up to the U.S. going from being the world’s largest producer of enriched uranium fuel to the world’s largest importer. Shocking, considering that only decade ago we were concerned about being in similar shoes related to oil and gas.

The ability to produce enriched uranium is also a critical national security requirement, and nonproliferation agreements prevent us from relying on foreign nuclear technologies or material for military purposes. For example, we need a steady supply of enriched uranium to replenish the tritium reserves in our nuclear weapons, without which they cannot operate reliably. While we are meeting this requirement from a finite stockpile of previously enriched material, this is not a long-term solution.

President Trump and his administration has been calling for an “All of the Above” energy strategy that achieves U.S. “energy dominance”. But advanced fossil fuels and renewables can’t do it alone. Nuclear energy and the supply chain that comes with it must be a part of the picture.

It’s time we had an honest conversation about America’s decaying nuclear infrastructure. Perry, the “all of the above” governor of Texas turned “energy dominance” secretary of energy, is just the right person to lead it.