Apr 27, 2022
Senator Joe Manchin's International Nuclear Energy Act of 2022 is couched in a good deal of America first-style rhetoric, promising to deliver a new home-grown "whole-of-government strategy for nuclear cooperation and nuclear exports."
There are a number of dangers inherent in this plan.
In reality, it is another fatal step backwards, one that will squander precious time while diverting funds away from our most important and urgent existential threat: the climate crisis.
Not content with derailing the Biden administration's Build Back Better legislation to address climate, the Democrat from West Virginia and his co-sponsor, Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho, envision a grand scheme to build a veritable American nuclear empire, manufacturing and exporting everything from nuclear reactor technology and fuel, to financing services and radioactive waste management.
There are a number of dangers inherent in this plan. One of the program's export targets is "embarking civil nuclear energy nations," that is, countries that do not already have nuclear power programs. The encouragement of non-nuclear countries to develop nuclear power programs inevitably opens the door to a transition to nuclear weapons development.
This is made even more likely by the Act's intention to export not only Light-Water Reactor technology but also Non-Light Water Reactors (NLWR), all under the banner of "civil nuclear technologies." But NLWRs are not necessarily civil. Many require High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU), a fuel that can be enriched to as high as 20%, making it nuclear weapons usable. HALEU can also more easily be further enriched to weapons grade than traditional low-enriched uranium fuel.
So-called advanced new reactor designs now in the planning stages, can also both use and make plutonium, a clear proliferation risk.
The target countries for this American nuclear largesse are not necessarily restricted to known allies and partners, although these could already include countries like Saudi Arabia, for whom there is no logic to choose nuclear power development over solar or wind other than the link to nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the Act allows the Assistant and Deputy Assistant of the US Department of Energy to select "any other country" that either "determines to be appropriate," as recipients of American nuclear exports, something that could be deeply problematic depending on the US administration in power (witness President Trump's cosy coddling of Russian premier, Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un).
The legislation also wants to accelerate (in other words, weaken) regulatory oversight to bring the plans more quickly to fruition. But, especially in regards to the new and untested "advanced" reactor designs, many with unresolved safety issues, fewer or weaker regulations are a significant risk.
Even the usually compliant U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected the first round submission of Oklo's "Aurora" small modular reactor, saying: "Oklo has repeatedly failed to provide substantive information in response to NRC staff requests for additional information on the maximum credible accident for the Aurora design, the safety classification of structures, systems, and components, and other issues needed for the NRC staff to establish a schedule and complete its technical review."
The very obvious radiation risks posed by Russia's attack on Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and its occupation of the Chernobyl nuclear site, coupled with the impetus to cut off energy imports from Russia, have prompted a bizarre and illogical policy response, not restricted to the United States: expand the domestic nuclear sector.
Mining and enriching uranium and manufacturing and exporting reactors and uranium fuel around the world will not make us safer. Furthermore, it pours much-needed funds into an industry that cannot compete with renewable energy, which can deliver larger carbon reductions faster and at far lower cost.
Senator Manchin has already sabotaged his own party's Build Back Better plan to address the climate crisis. Now he wants to delay and divert action on climate by building his own nuclear empire. It's a costly mistake that must be defeated.
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