In this week’s issue, we highlight the need for the U.S. to compete with China’s rapidly growing nuclear development and export programs as a means of preventing nuclear proliferation and Chinese dominance in the market. We also note a new report by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance that provides a detailed blueprint for the rapid advancement of the U.S. civil nuclear sector. Finally, we draw attention to the recent passing of the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) by the U.S. Senate, in a bid to restore nuclear power leadership and fast track the development of next-generation nuclear technologies.
Strategically Countering China’s Global Nuclear Ambitions
Ken Luongo and Paul Murphy
In an increasingly carbon-choked world, a global nuclear power groundswell seems to be surfacing. The civil nuclear future will be providing smaller and non-traditional nuclear power plants to developing economy nations, remote settlements, and industrial operations including desalination and hydrogen production. The question is how this next-gen nuclear wave will play out and whether China will dominate it.

A recent spate of speeches and articles have augured the beginnings of a new U.S.-China Cold War. This conflict is not a certainty, and if it develops, it will not mimic the classic Soviet-American competition. It will be much less about ideology and much more about global technological superiority, competitiveness, and influence.  

How the nuclear energy landscape of the latter half of the 21st Century evolves is a significant concern. The future of clean energy is a central global economic, energy, environmental, diplomatic, and security issue.

At the moment, the U.S. arguably has the technical edge in next-generation nuclear, but that may not last if it is not carefully nurtured and accelerated through policy innovations that emphasize both technology promotion and effective project delivery. China’s reactor development is state financed, its exports state supported, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) its market conveyor. Made in China 2025 is a state-led blueprint for elevating China to the top of the world’s high-tech pyramid. Under this framework, its High-Temperature Gas Reactor (HTGR) at Shidao Bay is advancing, and China has invested heavily in molten salt technology, which also has military applications.

China’s global nuclear ambitions can be countered. Romania’s recent elimination of the China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) from its Cernavoda reactor competition is a prime example. But the strategy of the future must be global, holistic, and persistent.

An effective strategy to counter China’s 21st Century nuclear ambitions would have 5 components: (1) integrate essential partners; (2) provide competitive financing and project delivery solutions; (3) target key markets and provide early stage support to newcomer nations; (4) ensure the highest project standards; and (5) maintain strong nuclear safety, security, and safeguards.

There is demonstrated, deep bipartisan support in the U.S. for next generation nuclear power. The Executive Branch and the Congress have provided a stream of legislation and funding. But, despite this commitment, the scale of the financial support from the government for meaningful project development is relatively small and the deployment strategy not well defined. There also are disconnects between government agencies and with (and within) the next-gen nuclear industry. Bridging these gaps is essential and would force the focus to be on results, not just research, and that is the only way to win the future nuclear competition. 

Expanding partnership internationally also is essential. The U.S. can’t go it alone. The atrophy within its nuclear industry supply chain necessitates collaboration with allies. And these allies have woken up to China’s metastasizing challenges. Canada, Australia, the U.K., and the European Union have all taken tougher stances against China’s missteps and aggressiveness, including its political crackdown on Hong Kong, military activities in the South China Sea, treatment of minority groups within China, deception on COVID-19, coercive diplomacy, trade threats, and intellectual property theft. America should take advantage of this reversal of fortune to recraft its alliances to ensure they effectively respond to China’s nuclear strategies.

While the necessity of creating stronger international and private sector partnerships is clear, there are two potential showstoppers on the path to checking China’s future nuclear power dominance – financing and future market cultivation.

Democratic nations and private sector companies are at an extreme disadvantage when facing state financing from China. Recently the U.S. has taken steps to enhance its nuclear export financing capability. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation removed a nuclear power financing prohibition and the U.S. Export-Import Bank created the Program on China and Transformational Exports

 If deployed rapidly, creatively, and robustly, these tools will strengthen the U.S. ability to compete with Chinese financing offerings. But they may not be enough to overcome China’s sovereign investment strength. America and its allies need a comprehensive private sector and government financing mechanism that covers multiple phases of a project’s lifecycle, from early-stage programmatic support with hands-on training based on experiential knowledge through project delivery and operation.

This type of financial strategy also would support the cultivation of target markets for next-gen reactors. Foundations need to be laid far in advance of the technology selection with countries considering small modular and advanced reactors. The deployment of the first of these new reactors will arrive inside of 10 years. America and its allies need to aggressively take advantage of this decade to cultivate clients because China will be unrelenting in leveraging its advantages to establish dependent relationships with these nations.

The core of this future nuclear market is developing economy nations that require smaller scale, distributed electricity. Because they mostly are nuclear newcomer nations, they will require enhanced support to ensure that the technology is operated responsibly. This includes “how to” training and direct advisory support. The ability to offer this comprehensive training and to support high levels of safety, safeguards, and security is a strategic advantage possessed by the U.S. and its allies.

In responding effectively to China’s competitive nuclear advantages, the U.S. needs a comprehensive, calculated, and integrated strategy that promotes its interests, values, partnerships, and global stability. The consequences of the failure to act strategically, globally, and successfully to counter China’s nuclear ambitions could be a century dominated by China-exported and controlled civil nuclear technology. This will create global security dangers and exacerbate geopolitical disadvantages.

The China challenge has been raised in high relief in recent months, but the integrated strategy for countering it is lagging. If that lasts for much longer, the opportunity to provide an effective counterweight may be lost.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security
Paul Murphy, Managing Director, Murphy Energy and Infrastructure Consulting, LLC

The Nuclear Innovation Alliance has released a new report, ‘U.S. Nuclear Innovation in a Global Economy: Updating an Outdated National Security Framework’, that details a number of steps the U.S. can take to empower its civil nuclear sector. Centering on the repeal of a law that bans U.S. allies from investing in American nuclear innovation, the report argues that international collaboration with close allies can help to overcome financing barriers and make the U.S. nuclear sector globally competitive.
Nuclear Collaborations
The Czech government has signed a number of agreements with Czech energy conglomerate ČEZ for the construction of a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant (NPP). The agreements cover a wide range of project elements, including the tender for reactor suppliers, and will see the plant undergo construction beginning in 2029.
Nuclear Policy, Governance, and Geopolitics
A group of U.K. ministers has demanded a review of China’s role in the Hinkley Point C NPP amid fears of Beijing’s rising influence over Britain. The politicians, led by former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, claim that ministers were initially misled on the degree of involvement by the Chinese nuclear corporation when they initially approved its involvement in the project.

The Barakah NPP in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has officially been launched as the first of its four reactors began producing electricity at the beginning of August. The landmark development marks the launching of the Arab world’s first NPP.

Kenya’s nuclear energy agency has submitted its findings on a potential $5 billion NPP, claiming that a plant is on course to be built and begin operating in about seven years. The findings follow a stated aim by the Kenyan government to increase its nuclear power capacity fourfold, beginning with an initial 1,000MW in 2035.

The Philippines government has created an inter-agency panel to research the feasibility of a national nuclear energy policy. With soaring demands for power amidst significant problems in its energy sector, nuclear power has long been considered a viable addition to the country’s current energy mix with the move being dubbed “a major step towards the realization of a Philippine nuclear energy programme.”

Tainwan 5, the fifth unit at China’s Jiangsu NPP, has achieved criticality for the first time after completing a sustained chain reaction. The unit is an indigenous-designed ACPR1000 Pressurized Water Reactor, capable of generating 1080MWe, and is expected to be connected to the Chinese grid later this year. 

Mexico’s Laguna Verde-1 reactor will operate until at least 2050 following the approval of a 30-year license extension by the country’s energy ministry. The reactor, which first began commercial operation in 1990, stands alongside a second unit, Laguna Verde-2, which is seeking a similar extension on its license. 

The IAEA and the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) have called for greater support in the deployment of next-generation nuclear technologies in the face of an oncoming climate crisis. The appeals to the public came during the 14th GIF-IAEA Interface Meeting, during which participants discussed altering research, design and development methods while maintaining a focus on security and employee training.
Domestic Civil Nuclear Developments
The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) has lifted a ban on the financing of nuclear power projects abroad following months of deliberation. IDFC funding will prioritize supporting advanced nuclear technologies in emerging markets as a means of supporting access to clean electricity.

The U.S. Senate has passed the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), which seeks to restore U.S. leadership in nuclear power and promote the construction of next-generation nuclear technologies. Headed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, the Act was included as an amendment to the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

 John Barrasso, the U.S. Senator from Wyoming (R), has released a draft of legislation that aims to revitalize the U.S. nuclear infrastructure. The American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 outlines its stated aims to restore U.S. international nuclear leadership, preserve America’s uranium supply chain, reduce carbon emissions and strengthen the U.S.’s economic, energy and national security.

The U.S. Department of Energy has recently issued a formal request to the U.S. nuclear private sector to develop plans for nuclear power plants that can be operational on the moon and Mars. The move comes as the Trump administration takes a more aggressive approach to space travel and exploration. The project will be spearheaded jointly by the Idaho National Laboratory and NASA.

Three Republican Senators have praised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after it developed a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for next-generation advanced nuclear reactors. John Barrasso (R-WY), Mike Braun (R-IN) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) claim that the Statement will help nuclear innovators to deploy their technologies more quickly and reliably. 

A number of Republican Senators have drafted a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging him to support policies that encourage job growth in the clean energy sector, including civil nuclear. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Richard Burr (R-NC) all signed the letter, which seeks to renew job growth amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Trump has fired the Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), James Thompson, over claims that TVA fired over 200 employees and replaced them with cheaper foreign labor. Trump has also called on TVA’s board to oust its President and CEO Jeffrey Lyash over the matter.

Congressional Democrats have voiced concerns over Republican efforts to speed up licensing and regulatory processing of next-generation nuclear reactors, citing the need for thorough safety reviews and a cautious approach to advanced nuclear technologies. Senate Environment Committee member Tom Carper (D-DE) stated earlier this week that he shared Republicans’ enthusiasm for advanced nuclear reactors, but fears “making additional, unwarranted changes at this time could seriously disrupt the regulatory process in a way that threatens the safety reviews of these new technologies.”
Nuclear Security and Emerging Technologies
Saudi Arabia has constructed a new uranium ore processing facility with significant help from China, raising concerns from the U.S. about the Saudi’s growing nuclear capacity. Intelligence agencies have reportedly scrutinized the move as a potential cover for the development of nuclear weapons, noting that secrecy surrounding the new facility has left nuclear regulators and the international community largely in the dark.

Construction on the world’s largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor, the ITER reactor, has begun. The international project, located in France, has long been the most promising nuclear fusion project, and despite a history of delays is expected to start up in 2035.

The U.S. Coast Guard is set to deliver a plan to the White House detailing the construction of a new generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers. The move comes as the Trump administration takes a more aggressive stance on Arctic geopolitics as a means of countering Russian and Chinese influence.
Noteworthy Research
A recent report by consulting firm UxC titled, ‘Global Nuclear Market Assessment Based on IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C Report’, claims that the U.S. civil nuclear export market could be worth between $1.3 and $1.9 trillion until 2050. 

Former American and Danish IAEA Ambassadors, Kenneth C. Brill and John H. Bernhard, have co-authored a piece, ‘Preventing the Preventable: Strengthening International Controls to Thwart Radiological Terrorism’, asserting the need for international law mandating accountability on the disposal of radioactive materials.

A rapid decarbonization of the U.S. economy by promoting nuclear and wind would significantly bolster the number of good-paying jobs, according to a report published by the World Nuclear Association. ‘Employment in the Nuclear and Wind Energy Generating Sectors’ notes that throughout the construction, operations and maintenance processes involved in nuclear and wind projects, there is roughly 25% more employment per unit of electricity generated.
The Nuclear Conversation
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