The nuclear power industry, under pressure economically, is arguing that it deserves government support because it is essential for “national security”, notes Jim Green, editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. Green explains why he finds this argument disingenuous and unconvincing.
The nuclear power industry has long maintained that it has no connection whatsoever to nuclear weapons proliferation. This argument was always based on lies and half-truths, as I make clear in this article in Nuclear Monitor #840.
Ironically, the nuclear industry is now admitting they were not telling the whole truth. Its proponents are arguing it deserves public support precisely because it is essential for national security reasons! Some of them are adding a peculiar twist to their argument: they are saying that a strong nuclear power sector needs to be maintained in western countries so that they can maintain a capability to constrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Is there any substance to this argument? Could a precipitous decline of nuclear power, for instance in the US, have adverse consequences for US national security?
That is certainly what a growing number of nuclear advocates are arguing. The Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, has been trying to convince politicians in Washington that if the AP1000 reactor construction projects in South Carolina and Georgia aren’t completed, it would stunt development of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex because the engineering expertise on the energy side helps the weapons side.
The pro-nuclear Environmental Progress group also issues ominous warnings of “global nuclear domination by Russia” and argues that this should be a reason for massive, multifaceted taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry and for a taxpayer-funded bailout of bankrupt Westinghouse.
A new report by the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) makes the same argument and arrives at the same conclusions, arguing for massive additional subsidies for the civil nuclear industry in the US, including credit support, tax incentives and federal siting and/or purchase power agreements. The EFI report also advocates establishing a broad-based consortium of nuclear supply chain companies, power-generating companies, financing institutions and “other appropriate entities” to share the risk and benefits of further new-build projects both in the US and internationally.
The EFI certainly carries much greater weight than Environmental Progress. The latter is a fake environmental group led by paid pro-nuclear lobbyists, whereas the EFI is a creation of Ernest Moniz, who served as Energy Secretary under president Barack Obama.
The EFI report argues on the one hand that effective international engagement on nuclear issues depends on a strong domestic nuclear industry, but it also explicitly makes the case that a strong domestic nuclear power industry is necessary to directly support the US nuclear weapons program. The report states that the US nuclear energy sector “helps the U.S military meet specific defense priorities, supports the implementation of U.S. nonproliferation policy, and is essential to the global projection of U.S. military capability. The flip side is that an eroding nuclear enterprise will compromise important nuclear security capabilities or make them more costly.”
For example, on the US Navy’s alleged need for a civil nuclear industry, the EFI report states: “The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program is comprised of military and civilian personnel who design, build, operate, maintain and manage the nearly one hundred reactors that power US aircraft carriers and submarines and provide training and research services. The program is operated jointly by the Department of Energy and the US Navy. Nuclear reactors provide the Navy with the mobility, flexibility and endurance required to carry out its global mission. More powerful reactors are beginning to be employed on the new Ford class aircraft carriers and will enable the new Columbia class of submarines in the next decades.”
“A strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements. This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with the commercial nuclear energy sector. This supply chain for meeting the critical national security need for design and operation of Navy reactors includes a workforce trained in science and engineering, comprised of US citizens who qualify for security clearances.”
“The Navy will (also) eventually need additional highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel its reactors for long intervals between refueling. Because of the national security use and the sensitivity of HEU production, the entire supply chain from uranium feed to the enrichment technology must be of United States origin. There is currently no such domestic capability in the supply chain. The relatively lengthy time period required to stand up such a capability raises serious, near-term concerns about the US capacity to meet this critical national security need.”
The EFI report also states that the companies that supply the shrinking civil nuclear reactor program are the same firms providing components and enriched uranium to keep the Navy’s nuclear-propelled vessels operating. And the report raises concerns about the workforce: “A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers.”
The refreshing honesty displayed by the EFI report about the connections between the peaceful nuclear industry and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might indeed backfire
The EFI report also discusses civil/military connections beyond the Navy’s requirements. For example it states: “The nuclear weapons stockpile requires a constant source of tritium (half life about 12.5 years), provided by irradiating special fuel rods in one or two commercial power reactors. As with the Navy HEU requirements, the tritium must be supplied from US-origin reactors using domestically produced LEU reactor fuel. Once again, we do not have the long-term capability to meet this need because of the absence of an enrichment facility using US-origin technology. This is a glaring hole in the domestic nuclear supply chain, since the only enrichment facility in the United States today uses Urenco (European) technology to supply power reactor fuel.”
In addition, the report broadens the workforce argument beyond the Navy, stating that the number of people pursuing higher education in nuclear sciences is becoming too small to sustain the nuclear industry and that a nuclear career path will be still less attractive if only military careers were available.
The EFI report concludes that “a stabilized existing reactor fleet and new builds” will be needed to rebuild a supply chain that will underpin national security “success“.
Economy of scale
Do these arguments stack up? Not really. A strong civil industry may help the weapons program but it isn’t essential.
If tritium isn’t produced in one particular power reactor, it can be produced in another power reactor, or a research reactor, or a small military reactor could be built or restarted to produce tritium for weapons. As for low-enriched uranium to fuel reactors used to produce tritium, the European consortium Urenco has reportedly approved the use of its enriched uranium to fuel reactors in the US used to produce tritium.
If HEU isn’t produced in a dual-use domestic enrichment plant, a dedicated military enrichment plant will do the job (and could be built with or without the support of a civil enrichment industry), or HEU can be sourced elsewhere (e.g. from dismantled weapons).
It also helps the weapons program to have a pool of trained personnel in the civil sector to draw from ‒ but again it isn’t essential.
The debate in the UK
The UK’s nuclear power industry is closer to extinction than the US industry. The US has 99 operable power reactors, a large majority of them 30+ years old. The UK has 15 power reactors, most of them 30+ years old.
The power/weapons arguments are also starting to surface in the UK. As Paul Brown wrote in Climate News Network on August 23: “Britain decided in 2002 after an objective inquiryby the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) that nuclear was becoming too expensive and renewables were a better alternative for generating electricity. However, quite unexpectedly, in 2005, after a secretive review under the premiership of Tony Blair, the policy was reversed and the UK government announced a revival of the nuclear industry.”
“Corresponding with this unprecedented U-turn on civil nuclear power was an equally unprecedented intensification in efforts to preserve nuclear skills for the military sector. Many millions of pounds have been given in government grants since that time to set up nuclear training programmes. The Oxford Research Group (ORG), a UK think tank, published a two-part report, entitled Sustainable Security.19,20 Both parts examined the prospects of the UK’s Trident nuclear programme influencing its energy policy. The ORG concluded that the government realised it could not sustain its own nuclear weapons programme, or more particularly its nuclear-propelled submarine fleet, without a large and complementary civilian nuclear industry.”
“Commenting on the release of the American report on the military crisis being caused by the lack of civilian power projects, Andrew Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at the School of Business, University of Sussex, UK, said: ‘With renewable costs tumbling and the international nuclear industry in growing crisis, it is becoming ever more difficult to carry on concealing this key underlying military reason for attachment to civil nuclear power.’ In the last year the UK government has been trying to generate interest in an alternative civilian nuclear programme. It has encouraged a competition to develop small modular reactors.”
“These reactors are supposed to be dotted around the countryside to power small towns. There are a number of designs, but some are remarkably similar to the power generators for nuclear submarines, particularly those that will be needed for the UK’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent – the Trident programme. It is no coincidence that the frontline developer of both these kinds of reactors is Rolls-Royce, which has a workforce that seamlessly crosses over between military and civilian developments.”
Matt Kempner, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, questionsthe claim that the lack of a commercial nuclear industry to provide employment and training would have an adverse impact on the Navy: “Actually, a lot of the time it’s the other way around: Utilities often hire Navy-trained nuclear personnel. I asked the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program about how crucial the commercial nuclear industry is for the Navy. “The direct relationship between civilian and naval nuclear reactors is small,” public affairs director Lee Smith emailed me. But some components are supplied by the same companies, “providing some economy of scale for the manufacturer and reduced costs for the Navy.””
Of course, this discussion assumes that maintaining the US nuclear weapons program is a good thing ‒ an assumption that is strongly contested by many people. In fact, if the aim is to comply with the nation’s obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to seriously pursue disarmament, the decline of the civil nuclear industry would dovetail neatly with this obligation.
The refreshing honesty displayed by the EFI report about the connections between the peaceful nuclear industry and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might indeed backfire. Opponents of nuclear power in the US (and comparable countries) might redouble their efforts, knowing that their campaigning would also serve to undermine the WMD program to a greater or lesser extent.
Interestingly, note that there are a great many profound contradictions between Moniz’s role at the EFI and his role as co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. To give just a couple of examples, the Nuclear Threat Initiative argues the case for the elimination of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in the civil nuclear sector, but the EFI is having none of that ‒ it wants a civil enrichment industry to underpin military production of HEU. The Nuclear Threat Initiative warns that the US and Russia keep nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert, leaving both countries vulnerable to nuclear launch by accident, miscalculation or cyber-attack, whereas the EFI report states that the existence of the Russian nuclear weapons arsenal underscores the importance of US nuclear weapons to “global strategic stability and deterrence”.
What about the other argument put forward to bolster the case for expanded government support for the nuclear industry – that the US must be heavily involved in the global nuclear industry to prevent weapons proliferation and to shore up other geopolitical interests?
Michael E. Webber, an academic who receives funding from the US government and the power industry, argues that the “loss of expertise from a declining domestic nuclear workforce makes it hard for Americans to conduct the inspections that help keep the world safe from nuclear weapons.” Webber notes that around 2,500 people, including 200 US citizens, work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ‒ but he fails to note that only 385 of the IAEA’s staff members are safeguards inspectors, and that inspectors come from around 80 countries. His argument might carry a little more weight in relation to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a US agency concerned with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.
Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written an article – enthusiastically endorsed by the World Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and other nuclear advocates – arguing that US nuclear firms are at a competitive disadvantage compared to Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises. That argument dovetails neatly with industry calls for direct state funding to build nuclear power plants since private firms can’t or won’t cover the capital costs.
What will Trump do?
To what extent the Trump administration will be swayed by the arguments of the nuclear advocates is uncertain.
Trump is certainly an advocate of expanding the nuclear weapons program. But his comments linking civil and military nuclear programs have been so convoluted that it would take an oracle (or a Fox or a Breitbart) to decipher them.
He famously said in February 2017: “You know what uranium is, right? It’s a thing called nuclear weapons and other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.” And in the same month he said: “I am the first one that would like to see everybody nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power. It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
At the Future of Energy summit in April 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry joined the dots more clearly: “As we have not built nuclear plants over a 30-year time, the intellectual capability, the manufacturing capability, I will not say has been completely lost, but has been impacted in a major way. In doing so, the development of our weapons side has been impacted.”
Perry continued: “There is a conversation, there is a discussion ‒ some of it obviously very classified ‒ that will be occurring as we going forward to make sure that we have the decisions, made by Congress in a lot of these cases, to protect the security interests of America …”
Nevertheless, the Trump administration has done little to date in the way of actual support for the nuclear energy sector. A request for a non-repayable handout of US$1‒3 billion to help keep the VC Summer reactor project in South Carolina alive was rejected and the project was abandoned shortly thereafter.
The administration has also proposed cutting nuclear power R&D funding and killing off the loan guarantee program (which would jeopardize the only nuclear new-build program in the US ‒ the Vogtle project in Georgia). In June, the administration barred 27 Department of Energy scientists from attending an IAEA conference in Russia on fast neutron reactors. One scientist offered to pay his own way and was still barred from attending.
Commenting on Hibbs’ article, Ted Jones from the Nuclear Energy Institute said: “The US nuclear industry has been competing not just against foreign companies but also against their governments ‒ which seek the unique strategic benefits of a nuclear energy supplier. For our nation, much more is at stake than billions in US nuclear exports and tens of thousands of American jobs.”
Hibbs, like Webber, argues that US capacity to constrain weapons proliferation will be adversely impacted by the domestic downturn of nuclear power and by the waning prospects for US nuclear exports (greatly diminished by Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing).
He also argues that historically the US nuclear export program has facilitated “strategic trade penetration”. He states that the Atoms for Peace program “was designed to expand U.S. influence during the Cold War, and it succeeded” ‒ but he fails to note that the Atoms for Peace program also spread dual-use nuclear facilities and materials across the globe.
Hibbs further makes the exaggerated claim that the nuclear export programs of Russia and China give them “access to strategic decisionmaking” in dozens of countries “concerning technology, energy, and foreign policy for decades to come”.
Hibbs’ article says everything the US nuclear industry wants to hear ‒ and nothing it doesn’t want to hear
He states that the US and other established nuclear-technology-owning countries
“made the rules for nuclear exporting, nonproliferation, nuclear security, and business transparency” and problems loom if that leadership is ceded to Russia and China. He cites allegations of Russian cyberattacks against nuclear power targets and alleged Chinese economic espionage against Westinghouse.
Hibbs also questions whether Russia and China have strictly adhered to the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s guidelines concerning their exports to India and Pakistan, respectively. But he doesn’t mention that the US took an axe to the global non-proliferation architecture with the US‒India deal (in particular, the prior prohibition on nuclear trade with non-NPT states). And he doesn’t mention that the US is now trying to undermine the Nuclear Suppliers Group by pressuring it to include India despite India’s expansive program to expand its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal and its dodgy record in relation to nuclear exports.
Hibbs’ article says everything the US nuclear industry wants to hear ‒ and nothing it doesn’t want to hear. It also ignores the US’s own questionable geopolitical nuclear record, such as the fact that the US has done all it can to undermine the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the UN in early July 2017, and the fact that the US boycotted the negotiations. Recently reports have surfaced that the US warned Sweden that if it signs the UN treaty, bilateral defence cooperation will be hampered and it would jeopardize the possibility of military support from the US in a crisis situation.
Coming from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hibbs’ article seems strangely irresponsible and one-sided.
The argument that nuclear energy needs to be propped up for national security reasons seems a desperate attempt by the sector to get their hands on government subsidies. It also exposes the lies that the industry has been telling about its supposed non-relationship with the military sector. That relationship has always existed. But we do not need nuclear energy to protect us from nuclear threats.
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. This article appeared first in a slightly different form in Nuclear Monitor issue 850, 7 September 2017. It is republished here with permission.