USA needs 'robust' nuclear industry for security

18 August 2017

A Washington, DC-based organisation led by former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has called for greater federal-level recognition of the importance of the USA's nuclear energy supply chain to national security. In its first major report, Energy Future Initiatives (EFI) recommends immediate government action to support and encourage existing and future new-build projects and strengthen the supply chain.

EFI's report, The US Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler, examines the role nuclear energy enterprises play in meeting national security imperatives as well as their contribution to supplying electricity and maintaining a "robust" associated supply chain. These, the report says, are "intimately connected with US leadership in global nuclear non-proliferation policy and norms and with the nation's nuclear security capabilities".

The report identifies three "externalities" as drivers for public sector support for nuclear energy: mitigating climate change risk; managing energy supply price risk by maintaining fuel diversity; and contributing to national security. Nuclear energy contributes to the USA's national security through its connection with the country's leadership in global nuclear non-proliferation policy and its nuclear security capabilities.

Climate change risk mitigation and fuel diversity are beginning to be taken into account at the state level, but the role of the nuclear energy sector in meeting national security imperatives is "inherently Federal in nature" and is not addressed by state-level policies, the report says. "As such, the fundamental role of a robust nuclear energy sector in meeting national security imperatives must, in reality, be addressed by the Federal government."

Key enabler

A robust US nuclear energy sector is a "key enabler of national security", helping the US military to meet specific defence priorities and supporting the implementation of US non-proliferation policy, the report says. The sector is underpinned by generation from existing and new nuclear power plants and their associated supply chain but these are under "considerable stress", it says.

A strong domestic nuclear energy industry is seen as necessary for the country to maintain its overseas role, where it has been "a leader in setting the global standard for nuclear fuel cycle development consistent with nuclear non-proliferation objectives". The report notes the USA's failure to agree bilateral nuclear energy agreements with countries including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all of which have signed agreements concerning reactor construction and nuclear fuel supply with Russia. It also notes that the United Arab Emirates - with which the USA has a bilateral agreement - chose South Korea as the developer of its first nuclear reactors.

"A strong domestic nuclear enterprise will be necessary … to protect and advance US national security equities as nuclear fuel cycles develop internationally in regions that historically have had little or no nuclear energy," it says.

At the national level, the USA's naval nuclear propulsion program also relies on a robust domestic supply chain, the report says. The US Navy will "eventually" need additional high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for its reactors, the entire supply chain for which must be of US-origin because of the national security aspects and the "sensitivity" of HEU production, the report says. "There is currently no such domestic capability in the supply chain," it adds.

A domestic supply of enriched uranium is also needed to ensure supplies of tritium for military purposes, but the absence of an enrichment facility using US-origin technology means this need cannot be met in the long term. "This is a glaring hole in the domestic nuclear supply chain, since the only enrichment facility in the United States today uses Urenco (European) technology to supply power reactor fuel," the report says.

The domestic nuclear supply chain has in the past been sustained by the USA's large deployed civilian nuclear fleet but a "dramatic" reduction in nuclear construction from the late 1970s until construction began on four reactors in 2013 has taken its toll, according to the report. The future of the reactors under construction is now uncertain following Westinghouse's bankruptcy filing, and the risk of early retirement of existing capacity will also impact the supply chain.

"Without a strong nuclear energy program, which is by far the largest nuclear activity in the USA, sustaining the supply chain for both civilian and national security objectives will be challenging," the report says.

More than 700 companies in 44 states provide products or services in direct support of the US nuclear energy industry, and there are synergies between the supply chains for the naval and civil sectors with all of the companies involved in the naval supply chain also supplying the civil sector. However, many key components are no longer supplied domestically or have limited fabrication capability. These include: reactor pressure vessels; steam generators; pressurisers; main condensers and turbine generators; specialised valves; and passive residual heat removal.

Human resources are also likely to be affected by a weakening nuclear enterprise, with university courses in nuclear engineering and related disciplines likely to "constrict" and with US citizens less likely to pursue careers in nuclear technology.

Federal actions

To address these concerns the report recommends the US government directs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to "place a greater emphasis on the national security importance of nuclear power and its associated supply chain". The government should make the "maximum flexible use" of existing resources and capabilities, such as credit support and tax incentives, to "bolster support" for current and future new builds, if necessary taking legislative action to extend the availability of current programs.

Its suggestions also include working to harmonise federal and state electricity market policies to value nuclear's attributes appropriately, and establishing a broad-based consortium of nuclear supply chain companies, generating companies, financing institutions and "other appropriate entities" to share the risk and benefits of further new build projects both at home and internationally.

Nuclear Energy Institute vice president Dan Lipman said the report provided "another strong voice to the growing chorus of statesmen and experts who recognize the strategic value of retaining a strong US nuclear energy industry". He said: "Nuclear energy supports our national security, energy security and environmental goals. US investment in this critical sector is vital; the call to action in this report contains valuable recommendations as policymakers consider this important issue."

EFI is a not-for-profit organisation which aims to drive innovation in energy technology, policy and business models, providing policymakers, industry executives, NGOs and other leaders "options on how to advance a cleaner, safer, more affordable and secure energy future".

The organisation, led by Moniz with principals Melanie Kenderdine and Joseph Hezir, was launched in June. Moniz served as the US Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration from 2013 to 2017.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News