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How the U.S. Lost the Leadership Role in Nuclear Energy

By / 11.19.2009

Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to travel to different countries and interact with many of the world’s top nuclear engineers and scientists. They all say the same thing: the U.S. needs to reclaim its leadership role in nuclear energy development activities.

The international nuclear science and engineering community looks to the U.S. for leadership and direction in nuclear technology research, new concept development, deployment of advanced technologies, construction of research and power reactors, and the safe operation, regulation, and oversight of nuclear facilities, and their regulation and oversight.

However, for the past two decades the U.S. has fallen behind the rest of the world in many areas. Although we maintain a leading position in some, including research productivity and reactor operation and regulation, we have lagged in others: the development of research facilities, new power reactor construction, used nuclear fuel recycling, and implementation of new technology. In recent years, we have lagged in a number of key nuclear technology areas and have failed to significantly upgrade our capabilities and facilities. The result is that other nations now have the world-class leadership position in key aspects of nuclear energy.

Here’s what we haven’t done:

  • We have not built a new power reactor in this country for more than 25 years.
  • We have not upgraded or grown our capabilities to analyze radioactive materials.
  • We have not commissioned a research or test reactor since 1992 or a new power reactor since the mid-1990s.
  • We no longer have the fast neutron irradiation facilities, which are necessary in the development and testing of advanced materials, reactor concepts, fuel cycles, and the destruction of radioactive waste materials.
  • We no longer have the capability to forge the large steel components needed for the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Meanwhile, other countries have stepped forward to advance nuclear technology. In China, 16 new plants will be in operation by 2020, which would quadruple its nuclear capacity in the next decade or so. Other developing countries are following this example — some 30 countries that do not currently operate commercial nuclear plants are actively considering the construction of nuclear power plants.

Yet even as the world proceeds apace on nuclear energy, America is essentially sitting out the game, unable to compete because our nuclear technological and operational capabilities have atrophied from decades of dormancy.

To retain a world leadership position — to compete in the burgeoning global market for nuclear energy and take the lead in nuclear energy security — the U.S. must consistently invest in building new plants and developing new concepts for future reactors; lead in fuel-cycle research; educate future generations of nuclear scientists and engineers; and consistently upgrade facilities for the study of materials, fuel cycles, radiation damage, large-scale component manufacturing, neutron data measurements, and critical facilities. We also need to maintain our capabilities and understanding of radioactive material handling and the protection of workers and the public.

Technological leadership today requires being an active and reliable participant in the international community that one desires to lead. The U.S. needs to reinvest, replenish, and grow its capabilities in order to maintain a leadership position. Otherwise we cede the leadership and court the danger of becoming a minor player — even an irrelevant one — in the global discussion on nuclear energy.

Read Andrew Klein’s new PPI Policy Memo, Why Progressives Should Be More Open to Nuclear Energy.”