June 10, 2019

The recently released Atlantic Council Task Force on US Nuclear Energy Leadership report, entitled US Nuclear Leadership: Innovation and the Global Strategic Challenge, represents a year-long effort to examine the national security implications of nuclear power for the United States. The diverse mix of policy, regulatory, industry, utility, university, and environmental interests reflected in the Task Force contributed to a serious and wide-ranging consideration of four main issues:  saving the existing nuclear fleet; innovation and the development of a new generation of advanced reactors; challenges in the global market and the US export position; and nuclear fuel cycle and security concerns. Investigation of these policy areas led the Task Force to make three overarching recommendations: 1) maintain and expand the current fleet; 2) create a regulatory environment conducive to technological innovation; and 3) encourage and facilitate exports.

Task Force deliberations were objective and generally bipartisan in orientation, reflected in the naming of Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) as honorary co-chairs of the Task Force. All members shared a supportive view of the importance of nuclear for US energy diversification and national security. Current and former administration officials addressed and interacted with the Task Force, which also included former senior officials from the US Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), US Department of State, US Department of Defense (DOD), and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Staff from key congressional committees discussed significant issues related to foreign policy and legislative initiatives to advance innovation, regulatory reform, and public-private partnerships in the areas of nuclear research, development, and demonstration.

The Atlantic Council sought to tap into the experience of the Task Force members and focus on recommendations and priorities for action. Below is a sense of the discussion on the three major recommendations.

Maintain and Expand the Current Fleet

Throughout the year, a broad consensus emerged on the need to focus on maintaining existing US nuclear capabilities and the nuclear supply chain, which the Task Force determined to be critical foundations for national security, as well as for innovation and the future export of advanced systems. Furthermore, the Task Force highlighted the necessity of meeting mobile and stationary energy and power needs of the US military and continuing to provide domestic carbon-free electricity (currently at 55 percent of zero emissions generation).

The positive contribution of nuclear power to combatting climate change was recognized and discussed by the Task Force, along with federal, state, and regional electricity market developments and options.  There was a consensus on the need for reforms that recognize the high reliability and carbon-free characteristics of nuclear power and would put nuclear energy on a more level playing field. There was considerable support for expanding renewable energy portfolio standards to include clean energy sources. The Task Force discussed making a recommendation of putting a price on carbon, but some members argued that it was not currently a politically feasible recommendation. The discussion of market reform in competitive markets was highlighted as being of extreme importance, but the details of various regional systems were ultimately beyond the scope of the report. There was, however, a strong view that nuclear energy and coal needed to be separated in the US national policy approach and that the negative experience with the current administration’s letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which asked for relief for both coal and nuclear, be avoided in the future.

Create a Regulatory Environment Conducive to Technological Innovation

The Task Force—which included several leading developers of advanced nuclear technologies—viewed US leadership in nuclear technology innovation as fundamental to the future of the industry and the United States’ global position. The Task Force heard from developers and those working on projects to support R&D, such as the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and authors of the major “The Future of Nuclear Power in a Carbon-Constrained World” MIT study. These presentations clearly revealed the large range of new reactor types under development, as well as the significant costs and timeframes involved in bringing new designs to the commercial demonstration stage. The need for government support in creating a US market—given low gas prices and the reluctance of utilities to assume these early risks—was highlighted and is included in the proposed US Nuclear Energy Leadership Act sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The Task Force did not evaluate and opine on the current DOE nuclear R&D program and budget, but it heard from key DOE laboratories on both the importance of adequate support and their efforts to address technical issues and leverage private financing. Significant discussion focused on the NRC regulatory process—how to improve NRC capacity and procedures for advanced reactors as directed in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA)—and the positive experiences some companies were having with the Canadian regulator in pursuing new reactor design reviews.

Encourage and Facilitate Exports

The foreign policy and global nuclear position of the United States as the largest nuclear energy generator colored all Task Force discussions. The urgency of a high-level commitment to the United States regaining its position and ensuring a sound international safety and security regime became clear to the Task Force, especially in light of the aggressive military, commercial, and technological developments in nuclear energy achieved by Russia and China, which are dominating new global reactor construction and carrying out major R&D to develop next generation technologies. With state nuclear monopoly companies and government financing models in Russia and China, it has been difficult for the US private sector approach to compete, especially given the financing limitations of the longtime lack of a Board quorum at the US Export-Import Bank.

Although the cost-competitiveness of new reactors is still unclear, the Task Force appreciated the potential for advanced reactors, especially small modular reactors (SMRs) and high temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs), in meeting the growing energy needs of non-OECD countries and contributing to global emissions mitigation. US nuclear cooperation and market development programs are small compared to those of Russia and China, with their efforts to train and develop counterparts for potential nuclear projects. The Task Force agreed on the need to expand and integrate nuclear power better into US foreign diplomatic and energy engagements. Although the US remains the largest producer of nuclear power in the world, it was deemed essential to reestablish US industry’s international credibility, after the problematic experiences with new reactor construction at Summer in South Carolina and Vogtle in Georgia, by successfully building and operating a new generation of reactors in the United States.

The Way Forward: Advancing the Bipartisan Effort

How this report and its recommendation for a whole-of-government approach that builds and revitalizes the interagency group that was convened following the June 2017 launch of the civilian nuclear review will be received in the current politicized environment in Washington remains to be seen.  Strong bipartisan efforts in Congress to address these issues must continue and so that the US can stay in the global nuclear game. The risks to our national security are high if we don’t pursue a focused and expanded public-private R&D effort. The proposed US Nuclear Leadership Act (NELA) mandates a comprehensive ten-year nuclear energy strategic plan for this effort and this act can hopefully be passed and signed into law soon. The critical priority of such a plan should also be emphasized and supported in congressional review of the DOE and NRC nuclear program budget requests for FY2020. The administration’s continued proposed cuts in these nuclear programs is regrettable and Congress should again maintain an adequate level of support for actions that catalyze and advance technological development and leverage private resources.

Robert F. Ichord, Jr is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and was rapporteur for the Atlantic Council Task Force on US Nuclear Energy Leadership and its report, US Nuclear Leadership: Innovation and the Global Strategic Challenge.