It seems increasingly likely that we are witnessing the dawn of a new nuclear era. After decades of decline in the West, a potent mix of climate goals and politically motivated energy wars have changed public and private opinion regarding the controversial energy source. Nuclear has notorious drawbacks, but it’s also a proven form of carbon-free energy production, with plenty of existing infrastructure. It also doesn’t entail any of the issues with variability that are associated with wind and solar power. Many advocates of nuclear power argue that we can no longer afford to ignore it as a key source of clean energy in the fight against climate change. And increasingly, the public and private sectors are listening.
In the United States, the Biden administration has kept momentum building for a nuclear renaissance with its Inflation Reduction Act, which includes tax breaks and other incentives all along the nuclear energy supply chain. Meanwhile, in the European Union, nuclear advocates are trying to push through policy supporting nuclear power as Europe reconfigures its energy landscape in the context of its energy war with Russia. As the bloc scrambles to replace the historically huge role of Russian natural gas in its energy mix, many see nuclear as a clear solution. Currently, pro-nuclear France is leading a campaign to convince the European Commission to take nuclear power’s role in the clean energy transition seriously. Public opinion, too, is shifting. A brand new Gallup poll shows that support for nuclear energy in the United States is at a 10-year high.
But there are some considerable drawbacks to the nuclear revolution. For one thing, the West doesn’t have nearly enough nuclear fuel to power the kind of comeback that many are expecting. After decades of neglect, nuclear infrastructure and supply chains in the West have atrophied. But some countries never stopped developing their nuclear power industries. China, South Korea, and Russia, for example, have robust nuclear energy sectors and the supply chains to back them up. This puts the West in the ironic position of potentially having to rely on Russian nuclear fuel to build up a homegrown nuclear sector robust enough to replace Russian fossil fuels. That’ll show ‘em.
In fact, as the European Union and the United States have condemned Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine through a litany of sanctions, the Russian nuclear sector has never stopped raking in export revenue. Russian state-operated nuclear energy firm Rosatom remains a key global source of nuclear fuel, enrichment services, and lines of funding for new nuclear facilities, all of which are prohibitively expensive for nearly any private company. Nearly one in five nuclear power plants worldwide are either in Russia or are Russian-built. And the long arm of Rosatom is still growing. Currently, the company is involved in the construction of 15 more nuclear plants around the world. In fact, Russia has been using nuclear expansion as a tactic to increase influence in African countries that could not otherwise afford to build the massively expensive plants.
According to the Royal United Services Institute in London, companies in the United States alone sent nearly $1 billion to Rosatom in 2022. “That’s money that’s going right into the defense complex in Russia,” Scott Melbye, executive vice president of uranium miner Uranium Energy and president of the Uranium Producers of America, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal. “We’re funding both sides of the war.” But slapping sanctions on Russian nuclear would be a logistical and political nightmare, thanks to a “Russian doll’s worth of interlocking dependencies,” in the words of Paul Dorfman, chair of Nuclear Consulting Group.
But weaning the West off of Russian nuclear supplies is not only a matter of principle, it’s a matter of energy security. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s not to put all your eggs in a despot’s basket. Building up alternative supply chains is therefore paramount to the success of the new nuclear revolution, but it won’t be easy. That being said, there are already major efforts underway to diversify uranium sources. $700 million of the money allocated by the Inflation Reduction Act is earmarked for just that: developing a domestic supply chain for high-assay low-enriched uranium. To be sure, it’s nothing compared to the scale of Rosatom’s operations, but it’s a start.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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