A new threat is emerging to nuclear power generation and the national security benefits that power provides.
Uranium producers are pushing the Department of Commerce to put tariffs or quotas on uranium for fueling power plants. Doing so would jack up the price of fuel and make nuclear power much more expensive than it is today.
This is the worst possible time to burden nuclear power plants with additional, unnecessary costs. At least 20 such plants are on the brink of premature retirement — that is, being shut down when they are still capable of producing electricity 24/7 for decades to come.
The reason? Excluding a few states, nuclear power plants don’t get compensated for the fact that they create zero greenhouse gasses and are heavily protected against cyber and physical attacks. Rising uranium prices could help push nuclear power plants over the brink and into premature retirement.
Such retirements are dangerous for grid resilience, disastrous for cutting greenhouse gasses, and bad for U.S. national security. China, Russia and other adversaries are threatening the power grid with increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons.
Fortunately, nuclear power plants must meet stringent, mandatory standards for cyber protection, and have months of fuel stored on site. They must also meet the toughest requirements in the energy sector for security against physical attacks and enemy efforts to corrupt power company supply chains.
Power generators fueled by natural gas must also meet cybersecurity requirements. But no such mandatory standards exist for the natural gas pipelines on which these generators depend. We must assume that in a future cyber conflict, natural gas systems will be a prime target for attack, especially in those U.S. regions where power generation heavily depends on the flow of gas.
Nuclear power plants provide a secure, strongly-defended means of protecting grid reliability in the face of such attacks.
Nuclear power’s contribution to grid resilience is also vital for national security. The Department of Defense relies on resilient power to carry out essential missions at home and abroad.
While the Department is making significant progress in bolstering mission assurance against a wide range of threats, reliance on power generation and associated fuel supplies that are more vulnerable to interruption (i.e. natural gas) could potentially jeopardize military facilities and functions.
Nuclear power can also contribute to national security by helping address another critical challenge: climate change. The Department of Defense is increasingly concerned about climate trends — in particular, rising sea levels — on the military’s ability to fully execute its mission essential functions.
Nuclear generation provides inherent value by producing resilient power without generating carbon emissions that contribute to the effects of climate change. These benefits, however, are not reflected in energy markets.
Adding quotas or tariffs on uranium could undermine both the national security and environmental benefits of nuclear generation. Doing so would drive up nuclear fuel prices by $500–$800 million annually, which could be the final straw for nuclear plants considering retirement. Moreover, concerns about the origins of U.S. uranium supplies are overblown.
In 2017, Canada and Australia — two age-old US security and trading partners — accounted for over 55 percent of American uranium imports, and NATO ally Kazakhstan accounted for another 11.5 percent.
The argument that uranium quotas are somehow needed to strengthen national security is backward. Burdening power plants with extra fuel costs, when so many plants are already at risk of premature retirements, would hurt — not help — grid resilience and the security of the United States.
Paul Stockton is the Managing Director of the economic and security advisory firm Sonecon LLC. His clients include Exelon and other energy sector companies. From 2009 to 2013, Dr. Stockton served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs, and is currently a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.