The U.S. has been a leader in nuclear power since the first time we split the atom, but recent developments indicate that this position is slipping. The most recent signal of U.S. decline in the nuclear energy business is the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric Co., which had been owned by the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba. This should concern the United States as nuclear energy is an important part of America’s economic power and national security.
Nuclear power is currently the only source of large baseload power that does not emit greenhouse gases or other air pollutants, making it crucial in the fight to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Additionally, global electricity demand is projected to increase markedly in the coming decade. Conventional nuclear power can be utilized and developed if the world hopes to satisfy increasing power demands, provide for economic growth, and address the national security threat of climate change.
America’s global competitors, such as China, view nuclear power as a strategic tool; a means of solidifying long-term relations and procuring attractive financing for their nuclear energy business. China plans to build as many as thirty new conventional nuclear plants over the next twenty years as well as invest in R&D to build a variety of next-generation reactors. They see nuclear power as a new export industry. In light of this, the new White House administration should be alarmed that the bankruptcy of Westinghouse will undermine America’s nuclear energy industry.
Even more concerning is the potential for Chinese investors to purchase Westinghouse Electric Co.’s nuclear energy business. If Westinghouse is bought by a Chinese entity, the Chinese could gain access to Westinghouse’s intellectual property, advancing their nuclear technology at our expense. A better option would be to arrange a marriage to an allied country’s nuclear industry. The two industry options would be to the French AREVA or the Korean KEPCO.
The American people view trade and acquisitions of U.S. assets by foreign companies skeptically as evidenced by a national poll of likely American voters conducted by FTI Consulting Inc. last year. More specifically, American voter sentiment is particularly skeptical of countries such as China. This skepticism is justified as Chinese companies are directly engaged with the government. According to a featured paper by Nicholas Petit, China’s syndicated economic organization creates conditions that are conducive to antitrust problems for the United States, and the Western world in general. While it is important for the US to trade with China, and invest in China, we should not do it at the expense of our national security.
The vast majority of the United States’ nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their lifespans, and by 2030 many of these plants will need to be retired. This is problematic because nuclear power is responsible for 21% of total electricity generated in the United States, and that percentage will likely need to increase over time. Over the long term, we shouldn’t subsidize nuclear power, but we do need to support advanced R&D into next-generation nuclear technology, as developing this sector would produce jobs, help export American ingenuity, and supplement the effort to decrease emissions.