Policy & Regulation

24 Apr 2020

National Security Requires Revival of U.S. Nuclear Energy, DOE Group Reports

24 Apr 2020  by Rod Walton   
Now is the time to reassert the power of nuclear in American energy policy, a new report claims.

The U.S. Nuclear Fuel Working Group established by President Trump has delivered a call for the U.S. government and energy sector to revive and strengthen the once dominant resource, technology and supply chain position that it abdicated to foreign entities such as Russia and China.

Nuclear energy still accounts for close to 20 percent of the domestic power generation capacity, but even that is under pressure as utilities are retiring aging plants for economic reasons. Only one new project, the Vogtle 3 and 4 expansion in Georgia, is currently under way.

This slow death spiral of the industry must be reversed, according to the new report released by the Department of Energy on Thursday. President Trump established the Nuclear Fuel Working Group last year in his memo on the effect of uranium imports to national security.

The U.S. has given away its competitive global position to state-owned enterprises, such as Russia and China, according to the report titled “Restoring America’s Nuclear Energy Advantage” by DOE.

“This reality threatens American energy security, narrows or eliminates foreign policy options and erodes American international influence to set strong non-proliferation, safety and security standards,” the report reads, laying out details of just how state-supported Russian and Chinese firms have exported nuclear technologies throughout various parts of the world.

“Russia is advancing its economic and foreign policy influence around the world with $133 billion in foreign orders for reactors, with plans to underwrite the construction of more than 50 reactors in 19 countries,” the working group noted. “China, a strategic competitor that uses predatory economics as a tool of statecraft, is currently constructing four reactors abroad, with prospects for 16 more reactors across multiple countries, in addition to the 45 reactors built in China over the past 33 years.”

The U.S., meanwhile, has brought into commercial operation only one new nuclear energy generation plant in three decades. It is no longer a major player on the world nuclear new build stage, according to the report.

The antidote to this technological malaise, the working group seems to be saying, is to revive all aspects of the civil nuclear supply chain—from uranium mining on federal lands, conversion and enrichment to sustaining the current generation fleet and restoring a world-class workforce in the technology. Finally, the end result will be to take all of that into the world markets to compete with the Russians and Chinese.

Nuclear fueled electricity is carbon free and baseload reliable, with capacity factors of close to 90 percent. The report noted, however, that these assets struggle in competition with low-priced gas-fired and renewable technologies.

“The majority of nuclear power plants under economic stress are in the deregulated electricity markets whose rules are overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC),” the Working Group report reads. It also “supports FERC action to expedite efforts with states, Regional Transmission Organizations (RSO)/Independent System Operators (ISO), and other stakeholders to improve energy price formation, increase competition and protect consumers in centrally-organized wholesale electricity markets.”

Among other strategy recommendations, the report advocates for greater uranium mining and milling activity, development of advanced small modular reactor and accident-tolerant fuel technologies, plus a plan enabling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny imports of fabricated nuclear fuel from Russia and China.

“The Russian state-owned enterprise, TVEL, began a project in 2008 to develop replacement fuel for U.S.-origin reactors operating in the United States,” the report noted. “While this path is not currently being pursued, TVEL could develop such replacement fuel in the near future. If this occurs, the Working Group supports swift action, via Executive Order to limit or ban the import of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China, on national security grounds.”

The working group was established from within the Department of Energy and includes Trump Administration officials.

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