When the federal government creates energy policy, it should do so with three things in mind: keeping costs low for American families, ensuring our energy independence, and protecting our national security. One source of clean energy has already proven safe, effective, and reliable across the country – nuclear energy.
While under the Obama Administration the United States’ leadership in nuclear energy, security, and technology is waning, together conservatives can reinvigorate the industry and reaffirm America’s global influence. The U.S. has been the world’s leader in nuclear production, innovation and safety since the 1950s. Today, nuclear is the source of 20 percent of our electricity and 60 percent of our emission-free energy production.
New innovators in the field have captured the imagination of the business world, and even Bill Gates has placed a bet on next-generation designs in the sector. Moreover, the U.S. is the gold standard for nuclear safety. Many nations follow and adapt their regulations after our own. America has always provided the best nuclear energy expertise and technology – and just as important, it has come with stringent nonproliferation controls. A strong U.S. nuclear industry means peace of mind around global nuclear security.
The problem is our nuclear industry is rapidly approaching a cliff, facing a large reduction in capacity and international influence. Five reactors have been shut down over the last four years. Ten more, representing 10 gigawatts of generating capacity — enough to power 7 million homes — face closure in the next five years. At the same time only four new reactors, two in South Carolina and two in Georgia, are under construction in the United States — the first in over 30 years — with no additional development planned.
By 2019, 10,000 nuclear utility workers – 38 percent of the workforce – will be eligible for retirement and only one majority-US-owned nuclear design and construction firm remains. This dangerous trend has implications when it comes to nonproliferation; 60 countries are in the process of developing their first nuclear reactors, and it is pivotal that the U.S. industry, with its unmatched safety standards, is on hand to lend advice, support and technology. Other countries simply do not have the same commitment to nonproliferation and safety.
Massive government bureaucracy is a major contributor to the nuclear industry’s current woes. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues to charge outrageous fees for permits and applications, while creating more and more rules without safety benefits. On the trade front nuclear export agreements are growing exponentially convoluted, diminishing America’s importance. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s recent decision to terminate the MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina jeopardizes a critical nonproliferation agreement with Russia that could leave Vladimir Putin with enough weapons grade plutonium for 17,000 new nuclear weapons. The president and the Democrats simply want to appease hard-core environmental groups opposed to all nuclear activities — even if it means sacrificing a nonproliferation agreement with a dangerously unstable nuclear state.
The result of President Obama’s failed leadership on nuclear activities has been a dramatic shift in international power dynamics. While America is decommissioning nuclear power plants, our rivals are drafting blueprints. China is building 23 new reactors; Russia is building 9, and India 6. They’re also poised to benefit from “fast neutron” next-generation reactors that are safer, cheaper, and can even run on recycled nuclear waste. There are no fast neutron demonstration plants in the U.S., and almost none are planned for deployment here. It’s no coincidence that Bill Gates and his next generation nuclear company, Terrapower, chose China to begin development.
Shockingly, we face the startling future of international nuclear policy, technology and exports being controlled by Russia and China. In 15 years, when developing nations want to engage in nuclear energy, they will look away from the United States for support. Already, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia’s nascent nuclear industries are forgoing U.S. nuclear cooperation. The UK is even building new Chinese-made reactors just outside of Manchester. It’s vital to preserve this proven, reliable and invaluable source of clean energy – not to mention maintain and grow 275,000 industry jobs – as well as to promote safe and peaceful global nuclear development.
America must renew research cooperation between the government and the private sector. A good first start is recently passed legislation from Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) in the House that supports developing a test bed for non-light water fuels and American uranium enrichment and nuclear innovation. Another bill recently introduced by Senators Inhofe (R-OK) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) would begin modernizing NRC licensing to allow safe, efficient development of advanced nuclear reactors.
America’s elementary and secondary schools need to encourage science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education early to spur additional graduates in nuclear engineering and physics. Congress needs to work to reform federal regulations to enable the advancement of today’s most innovative technologies. Finally, we need a President willing to reassert our essential role in the global nuclear industry as more nations develop their own nuclear capabilities before Russia and China fill the void.
Restoring America’s nuclear leadership will require strong political leadership determined to keep the United States globally competitive. In particular, the GOP needs to take the lead in a common sense, market-oriented energy agenda with an emphasis in American innovation and clean, safe and modern forms of nuclear power at the center. Republicans can ensure a safe, secure, and prosperous future here and around the world by strengthening and emboldening America’s nuclear industry.
Senator Tim Scott is a Republican U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Jay Faison is a Republican philanthropist and founder and chief executive officer of ClearPath Action, whose mission is to accelerate conservative clean energy solutions.