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Risks are stacking up against the U.S. nuclear industry

View of reactors at Three Mile Island across the water
The nuclear power plant on Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, which is scheduled to close on Sept. 30, 2019. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Due to atrophy at home and competition abroad, the U.S. nuclear industry is increasingly at risk of losing power plants, workforce talent and global business.

Why it matters: The civilian and military nuclear sectors depend on one another, and both are strategic assets vital to national security. Nuclear energy also eases the path to decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid.

Context: Prospective employment in the civilian nuclear power sector is a core incentive to academic training and military careers in nuclear energy. This supply chain of expertise is at least as essential as the material inputs.

Where it stands: The U.S. has lost 6 nuclear energy plants since 2013, while 9 more are planned to close in the next decade.

  • Nuclear power faces stiff competition from cheaper fuels like natural gas, solar and wind, while its reliability, resilience and zero-carbon footprint go undervalued.
  • Meanwhile, foreign state-owned nuclear companies can outcompete U.S. firms. Russia and China are building more than 60% of the world’s new nuclear plants, with significant state support.

What’s happening: Some states are incorporating nuclear energy into their clean energy portfolio standards to prevent plant closures. Congress recently passed 2 bills to encourage advanced nuclear technologies and a third was introduced in March.

Yes, but: Stronger legislation could help the industry by incentivizing more innovation and easing the permitting processes.

  • A carbon fee of $15 per ton that increases 5% a year (in real-dollar terms) could support the current fleet and even encourage new plant construction by 2050, according to the Energy Information Agency. A $25 baseline would yield even greater benefits.
  • Small modular reactors and “generation IV” technologies promise to reduce waste, shorten construction times and decrease proliferation and safety risks. These innovations could lower costs but would likely require government investment.

The bottom line: If more of America’s nuclear power plants shutter over the coming decade, the U.S. could see further erosion of both its international influence and the industrial-scientific base critical to future innovation.

The authors are with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, where Randolph Bell is director, Jennifer T. Gordon is deputy director and Robert F. Ichord Jr. is a senior fellow.

Go deeper: Read the Atlantic Council report on the U.S. nuclear industry's strategic challenges.