CSIS: “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy”


America’s nuclear energy industry is in decline. Low natural gas prices, financing hurdles, failure to find a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste, reactions to the Fukushima accident in Japan, and other factors are hastening the day when existing U.S. reactors become uneconomic. The decline of the U.S. nuclear energy industry could be much more rapid than policy makers and stakeholders anticipate. China, India, Russia, and others plan on adding nuclear technology to their mix, furthering the spread of nuclear materials around the globe. U.S. companies must meet a significant share of this demand for nuclear technology, but U.S. firms are currently at a competitive disadvantage due to restrictive and otherwise unsupportive export policies. Without a strong commercial presence in new markets, America’s ability to influence nonproliferation policies and nuclear safety behaviors worldwide is bound to diminish. The United States cannot afford to become irrelevant in a new nuclear age.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has produced an 86 page policy paper on the present and future of civilian nuclear power in America. I don’t know of another study that so thoroughly captures the 2013 perspective on the real-world state of nuclear electricity in the US. While this is a US-centric report, the necessary global context is covered in sufficient depth that the reader has access to a concentrated short-course on global nuclear deployment up to Gen III+ reactors.

The purpose of this work is to discover why the US nuclear industry is in severe decline, and to arrive at policy prescriptions designed to restore the industry so that it can contribute to global carbon-free  generation, and also influence proliferation and safety practices.

Students of energy policy know that, long-term, nuclear power is the only scalable, affordable alternative that can replace coal and gas to supply carbon-free dispatchable electricity.  So why aren’t US utilities building new nuclear at rates at least as great as China? Major roadblocks include financing which is heavily influenced by regulatory uncertainty. On financing, CSIS assembled eleven experts who contributed to the Financial Structuring Subgroup.

So I recommend this study to readers who want realistic proposals to reverse US decline, and also those who are looking for an authoritative global overview of nuclear electricity through 2030.  

You can buy the paper report from Amazon for $42.75 or you can download the free PDF from CSIS. Lean on your representative to study this report – explain why your vote depends upon their active support.

5 thoughts on “CSIS: “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy”

  1. “Restore US Leadership” – A bunch of old men must have written this paper. I bet they complained when their fathers wanted to go back to horses!

    These old guys want the US to control nuclear just as we did when we were the only game in town. Well, wake up. We need to play fair in a world where we are not only the not the big guy but have very little to sell (we already have sold everything). So, if you don’t have anything to sell, what do you do? If you are an old buy, you whine. Increasing R&D would be a good idea, but I don’t see that here.

    Reprocessing means making pure plutonium. Right? Well, the old guys only know about one ding of reprocessing – Purex. But South Korea would like to help us (like co-operate) to scale up a non-proliferation type reprocessing. We do a little R and they are doing a lot of R&D. Only thing in the way is a treaty with the US! Not only do old guys want to go back to the good old days, they want to stand in the way of young guys with a better idea.

    Here’s an idea for the old guys – “Go play with your grand kids and quit writing out of date papers”.

  2. I agree “Restore US Leadership” is not one of my significant goals. I understand their points that historically America’s ‘leverage’ have contributed to progress on proliferation, safety culture, etc. That discussion is entirely appropriate for their audience: the congresspeople who authorize funding, who can change the directives to NRC, etc.

    My reaction was similar to yours when I read the title “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy”. But when I read their work carefully I found they had taken an even-handed and thorough effort at peeling the onion. The most important causes behind the fall from grace of nuclear power in most of the OECD. The main thing special about the US today is relatively cheap methane. The same problem could arise in other nations if the greens don’t block horizontal drilling for shale gas.

    I see nothing at all in the paper supporting PUREX. They survey globally all the reprocessing options EXCEPT 4th generation approaches like IFR, LFR and similar. On enrichment, they discuss SILEX laser separation on page 16.

    I think that avoiding a deep dive into Gen IV designs was a good editorial choice given the mission of this work. Which is to persuade congress and the executive (and bureaucracies like DOE, NRC) to make a long list of policy changes that are strangling US progress, participation and exports. I don’t find anything to disagree with in their policy prescriptions. The big bet they hammer on repeatedly is that it is critical to support R&D and demonstration of SMRs. There is already industry and some political support for SMR programs – so that may be achievable. It has a chance with a generally clueless government.

    If there is a big step up in federal SMR support, that is a sound platform from which to promote R&D in and pilots of Gen IV.

    Do you have any issues with their RECOMMENDATION beginning page 51?

  3. Yes. I have issues with the list on page 51.
    First bullet point summary – “get back to the place where the US will only trade with your nation if your nation gives up the right to enrich and the right the recycle” – How would we feel if Russia came to us and said you must give up your right to laser enrich and if you don’t then we will not sell you any enriched uranium?
    Let’s take South Korea as an example. South Korea is now building a reactor that has NO United State proprietary parts and made entirely in South Korea (the United States can not make that claim). South Korea actually spends money and has a Gen IV plan for recycling while we do not. The DOE co-operates with South Korea on Gen IV recycling while the State dept continues to demand the South Korea NOT recycle. The old guys either ignore Gen IV recycle or don’t know about it. THAT IS BAD POLICY! The old guys are just restating the status quo. Good policy needs to be about moving forward not trying to get back to where we were. The world needs innovation like Gen IV recycling. The United States should lead by doing research and development not by trying to keep others from doing research and development. I strongly object to the first bullet point and to others but I am interested to see your thoughts on this one first.

  4. First bullet point summary – “get back to the place where the US will only trade with your nation if your nation gives up the right to enrich and the right the recycle”

    Dang — I can’t find any text in the CSIS paper like that. I even tried searching just for “trade” and failed to find any correspondence. My takeaway was actually the opposite – that the tangle of export barriers must be completely reformed. E.g., the “123 Agreement”. E.g., on page 53 BOLSTERING U.S. COMPETITIVENESS IN EXPORT MARKETS they write

    Consistent with this objective, we view as positive the administration’s recent acknowledgment that most nations will not be willing to give up their NPT rights to enrichment and reprocessing technology, and we support the decision to avoid insisting on the so-called “gold standard” in pending 123 Agreements, such as those with Vietnam and Jordan. The administration’s plan to adopt a “case-by-case” policy to negotiating future agreements recognizes that in order to benefit from the nonproliferation advantages that come from nuclear trade, the United States must “negotiate agreements that our partners can accept.”

    I agree with your South Korea case. That is a good example of the bad policy the Commission guys are trying to convince Congress to jettison.

    Regarding the “old guys”, a lot of the members (see page vii COMMISSION MEMBERS) are over 40. Which is what I would expect when you assemble a long list of insiders. I have to put Marv Fertel (NEI) on the list of good old guys:-)

    Keep in mind – this is a sales pitch, a glossy brochure intended to make it easier for Congress to make huge changes to the status quo. 

    Which is probably completely hopeless. I don’t follow US politics at all, but I do read here and there opinion that a Republican administration should be more cooperative with reform. I think George Bush backed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which included $billion+ for the INL Next Generation Nuclear Power Plant HTGR.

    • Here’s a tidbit of commentary on which of REP or DEM are more likely to support reforms of US nuclear policy. From one of my favorite people Burt Richter: 

      Nobelist Burton Richter on Why the US is Falling Behind

      Breakthrough interviewed Richter recently to get his opinion on next generation nuclear reactors, and why so many of them are being developed abroad and not by the Department of Energy in the United States. “The DOE is too screwed up to go into a partnership and do this in the US,” the blunt Richter told us, referring to the Bill Gates-backed nuclear design pursued in China by Terrapower.

      Is DOE really to blame? In the end, Richter told us it was partisan polarization that was the problem. “George W. Bush actually had a good thing on next generation nuclear,” Richter said. “When the Obama people came in all the Gen IV activities were stopped. With a system that keeps changing its priorities every few years, the [National DOE] Labs are pretty demoralized. The French have a long-term plan. The Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians have it. We don’t have it. That’s not the fault of the labs, that’s the fault of the administrations.”

      And that’s the fault, we might add, of irrational environmentalist and progressive fears of nuclear energy — something “Pandora’s Promise” hopes to change. Read the rest of our interview below.

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