Nuclear energy faces an uncertain future in the United States as the fuel is beset by fierce competition from natural gas and renewable energy in many markets, a failure to deliver new projects on time and at cost, and a public sensitive to operational safety. What do these challenges mean for U.S. nuclear technological competitiveness, national security and global climate change? In an effort to better understand the potential future of U.S. nuclear power, EPIC and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) explored these questions during a half-day conference in Washington, DC on May 24.
CSIS President John Hamre, the former deputy secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, opened the event by stating that there was a simple answer to the question: Can nuclear compete?
“The answer is ‘no,’ Hamre said. “But we need nuclear as a nation.”
The panels that followed explored whether and why maintaining the U.S. nuclear industry was important, on commercial, carbon emissions, and national security grounds. The conclusions were clear: The United States nuclear industry is ceding ground to other countries, underinvesting in a technology that could help confront climate change, and at risk of losing its preeminent seat at the table on nuclear security and nonproliferation.
Can Nuclear Reactor Technologies Compete at Home or Abroad?
The first panel, moderated by CSIS’s Jane Nakano, discussed whether American nuclear reactor technologies can compete internationally. Bob Coward, president of the American Nuclear Society, explained that more technology development is happening than people realize. The problem, he said, is that we can’t just keeping studying.
“We’ve gotten really good at studying and researching. We need to get better at implementation,” Coward said.
With the price of natural gas so low—and not predicted to significantly increase in the future—implementation is hard for an industry fighting against the laws of economics.
William Freebairn, S&P Global Platts’s senior managing editor for nuclear power, pointed out that nuclear wasn’t going to be able to compete in the United States or other places if companies don’t find ways to bring down costs.
“Capital and operating costs need to come down,” Freebairn said.
While low natural gas prices prevent nuclear from being cost-competitive at home, the standing of U.S. nuclear companies abroad is also losing traction as they compete against large government-sponsored companies that can offer soup-to-nuts packages including financing, training, fuel, waste disposal and more.
“A utility in most of the world is a government-owned entity, and often very big,” Coward explained. “We’re in a different boat than most other companies…How we organize our electric power sector is part of the challenge”
Coward also noted that “the logistical challenges of dealing with team America” serve as a hindrance to selling U.S. reactors abroad.
What is the Role of Nuclear in a Carbon Constrained World?
The next panel, moderated by CSIS’s Sarah Ladislaw, explored nuclear’s role in a carbon constrained world. The panelists, EPIC Director Michael Greenstone and David Victor from the University of California at San Diego, were not optimistic.
“We can talk about how much we like nuclear, but that’s just talk,” Greenstone said, “unless the market prices externalities.”
Pricing the externalities—i.e. factoring climate change, air pollution and other damages into the price of energy—means putting a price on carbon in some form. At that point, nuclear could compete just like any other energy technology, Greenstone said. He noted that the key is obtaining cheap energy that minimizes externalities, not favoring one type of technology over another
“Michael loves all his low-carbon children equally. He’s not going to choose one over the other,” Victor said.
The problem is that many policies today do favor one technology over another—whether they be renewable portfolio standards, tax credits or subsidies.
“When you start favoring one over another, you don’t get what you actually want,” Greenstone said, which is affordable energy and a decarbonized economy.
Yet, these piecemeal policies form the basis of the nation’s efforts to confront climate change because a comprehensive policy is not realistic. The reason: too many people don’t accept the reality of climate change. Greenstone suspects this is because they can’t see it impacting them. Ladislaw encouraged attendees to explore the work of the Climate Impact Lab—a project initiated by Greenstone and colleagues at Rutgers University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Rhodium Group— that pairs science and economics so people can see at a community level how climate change affects them.
While pricing the externalities is important, Victor and Greenstone agreed that it would also be prudent to increase investment into research and development for nuclear technologies, should that exploration uncover a way to make nuclear more cost competitive in the future. Victor said nuclear R&D is something the nation is underinvesting in now.
Is there a National Security Imperative for Nuclear?
The close link between national security and nuclear energy priorities came up at least obliquely in all of the day’s panels. The last panel, moderated by Adam Cohen, the president of Associated Universities, Inc. and a senior associate at CSIS, tackled the issue head-on.
Amb. Laura Holgate, a former representative to the United Nations and now a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, ran through a long list of reasons why nuclear power comes with advantages for national security, including the need for skilled nuclear engineers to service the country’s extensive nuclear arsenal and to maintain the safety of troops overseas who could benefit from having independence from the local oil supplies. But the one that the panel, which also included EPIC Founding Co-Director Bob Rosner, emphasized most was the importance of having a seat at the table as other countries seek nuclear power.
“If we’re a big player we’ll have a big voice,” Hogan said. “But as we become less of a player, it impacts our place at the table when it comes to nuclear and we cede the power to someone else.”
Rosner agreed: “If our nuclear industry dies, it’s not going to die in Russia, it’s not going to die in China, it’s not going to die in India.” These countries will continue to develop their nuclear power programs.
Hogan further emphasized that “The U.S. does not have a veto power over other countries’ nuclear energy aspirations.”
If they want nuclear energy they’re going to get it one way or another, she said. That means countries like Russia are going to step in and help new entrants.
To confront this challenge, Hogan said domestic and international policymakers need to come together in the same room to make nuclear decisions.