The United States is drastically falling behind in the global nuclear energy race. Just this March, Japanese-owned, Pittsburgh-based nuclear energy giant Westinghouse took a swift turn from rapid growth and expansion to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a potently somber note in a nation that once was at the forefront of nuclear power technologies.
As global populations continue to boom and greenhouse gases become an ever more pressing problem, nuclear is on the brink of a renaissance. Even more than wind and solar, nuclear promises to be the energy source of the future. An average wind turbine produces about 2 megawatts of electricity when there is enough wind to turn it. Compared to the 1,600 megawatts a modern nuclear plant will produce constantly for its 100-year lifespan, the choice seems obvious.
Due to its singular energy density and incredible efficiency, nuclear holds unmatched potential to tap into the exponential growth of energy demand. For many nations, like India, Russia, and China, it’s the obvious option in today’s rapidly changing energy landscape. In fact, in the rest of the world nuclear is has already been experiencing a boom for years--so why is the United States falling behind?
The collapse of Westinghouse was a bad omen, certainly, but not a death sentence. The factors that lead to parent company Toshiba’s demise (gross over-promising and skyrocketing liabilities totalling $9.8 billion last December) are purely factors of mismanagement, not an issue with the U.S.’s nuclear industry itself.
However, for the U.S. nuclear industry to catch up to Asia and Europe, there is a long way to go. We are currently heavily dependent on other nations’ more-established nuclear industries for imports and for the development of nuclear-capable plants on US soil (as with the case of Japanese-owned Westinghouse). The first, and perhaps the simplest step, toward self-sufficiency is a major investment in infrastructure. Related: Hedging Rush In U.S. Shale Could Send Prices Tanking
There are a few basic ways that the U.S. needs to ramp up its nuclear-capable infrastructure. Despite having significant sources of uranium domestically, more than 90 percent of uranium purchased by U.S. commercial nuclear reactors is imported, namely from Russia, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, and Namibia. Additionally, the U.S. is home to just one uranium enrichment plant, and it’s Dutch-owned. This lone plant can satisfy just a third of the nation’s demand. The last basic need is heavy water, or deuterium dioxide which has not been produced in the U.S. since 1996. Recently we’ve been importing it from Iran, of all places.
After infrastructure comes politics. In the last few decades, nuclear power in the U.S. has been regulated nearly out of existence. In the wake of 1970’s tragic Three Mile Island meltdown, unit costs for US nuclear power plants tripled. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office released an audit of the NRC that found just obtaining a license to build a fourth generation MSR or HTGR plant would cost $1 billion and take a decade.
Nuclear’s uphill battle to establish itself in the U.S. market is also in part thanks to the country’s continued dependence on oil, a glut of natural gas, and widespread incentives for wind and solar. But while domestic power demand remains static and demand around the world continues to boom, the U.S. is quickly losing its corner of the market.
The energy sector comprises 8 percent share of global GDP, and that number is only going to grow. As the market grows, energy production’s geopolitical power will grow alongside it. Nuclear is not only one of the most powerful factors in modern war, the harnessing of nuclear energy could prove to be one of the biggest factors in future economics. While the U.S. is frequently involved in headlines concerning the former, they are doing nothing to advance the latter. With almost no innovation, no infrastructure, and no plans to change that, the U.S. may not always have so much bargaining power when it comes to nuclear in a rapidly advancing global nuclear landscape.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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