The good news: this summer, fuel will be loaded into the first of four nuclear plants, reactors that are the first of a new generation of technology. These advanced reactors are an engineering marvel, bringing simpler, safer, and more reliable clean energy to many places around the world. The plants are a triumph of American design.
The not-so-good news: the reactors are in Shandong and Zhejiang, provinces of China. Meanwhile four similar advanced reactors, in Georgia and South Carolina, struggle to reach completion due to serious cost overruns and construction delays.
What is at stake here is not just the health of the power grid in the southeastern United States, or the 12,000 jobs at the U.S. projects, but a demonstration of our ability to strengthen national security and solidify the United States’ role as an energy technology exporter.
However, we seem to be backing away, ceding the world market to Russia and China, for the technology we pioneered.
The United States must demonstrate its commitment to our national security by investing in the completion of domestic reactors. Anything less risks squandering our technology legacy, with a corresponding loss of commercial success and global influence.
In the last few months, China has signed nuclear deals with Sudan, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Argentina and Britain (Hinckley Point C, in southwest England). China is mining uranium in Namibia. It is building reactors in Pakistan and is negotiating with several other countries.
Russia’s export orders at the end of last year were $133 billion, and export revenues were $6.4 billion, up 20 percent from two years earlier. In 2015, Rosatom, the Russian federal agency that exports reactors and administers the former Soviet weapons complex, said it had orders for 34 nuclear power reactors in 13 countries, with a total value of more than $300 billion. Customers included India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Vietnam, Iran and Armenia, Hungary, Jordan and Egypt. It is also negotiating with Nigeria, Indonesia, and Argentina.
Unlike China and Russia, South Korea is a geo-political ally, but it is also a commercial rival. South Korea is building a complex of four reactors in the United Arab Emirates, the first of what could be a wave of new projects in that region. Those reactors are not the same advanced model being built in Georgia, South Carolina and China, but they, too, are derived from American designs.
Through the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. showed it could build reactors here and abroad, and in the following decades we showed we could operate them like clockwork, with increasing reliability and productivity. Now the U.S. must do everything it can to ensure that we don’t lose the capability to build new nuclear plants in this country -- and around the world.
The Georgia and South Carolina projects, each a twin-reactor Westinghouse plant, are partly a product of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which included a production tax credit for new reactors, to encourage industry to invest in the next wave of nuclear plants in America. Utilities in Georgia and South Carolina took up the challenge. But they were hit with unforeseen complications.
Increased regulatory burdens, construction mismanagement, and changing sources of electricity generation have hampered our domestic nuclear revolution. Some of the construction problems were specific to the reactors but it takes time to reach technical maturity. This has been true whether one is building space ships, perfecting organ transplants or constructing the most advanced nuclear reactor.
What the nuclear projects need now is the same kind of steady policy support that China and Russia have demonstrated. The United States must demonstrate its commitment to our national security by investing in the completion of domestic reactors. Anything less risks squandering our technology legacy, with a corresponding loss of commercial success and global influence.
As Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross noted recently, “A solution is needed that does reflect both everybody’s economic interest and the national security interest.’’
“Having a nuclear-power capability is obviously a matter of national security,’’ he said.
He’s right, and we therefore need to ensure America’s nuclear energy capability remains the best in the world.