With or without the U.S., nuclear power will grow worldwide. Many hundreds of new reactors will be built.

Share story

Discussions in the U.S. on nuclear power often overlook the simple reality that it is an expanding worldwide energy source. This doesn’t mean only China; it means Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and the former Soviet Union. In the past few years, multi-reactor sites have broken ground in the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Turkey and Bangladesh, with Egypt likely to be next. More than 30 other nations, now without nuclear power, are working with the International Atomic Energy Agency to build their own programs.

Thus, a question: Does the rest of the world know something we don’t? Yes, and no. Yes, in that other nations understand nuclear power provides vast amounts of reliable non-carbon power. They know certain data are lucid: In 60 years, there have been three major accidents, under 70 deaths, and, except for Chernobyl, no increased cancer incidents. Many energy sources and even industries — oil and gas, construction, agriculture — see more deaths in a single year.

The “no” answer to the question comes from another reality hidden in plain sight: Dozens of nuclear startup companies exist in the U.S. and Canada. Two are in the Pacific Northwest: TerraPower, founded partly by Bill Gates, and NuScale in Corvallis, Oregon. These companies and their kin are born from motives of social responsibility and business success. They seek to reduce carbon emissions via innovative smaller reactor designs that are modular, more efficient, produce less waste and won’t melt down. NuScale has already applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for commercial design certification, a key step on the path to full licensing. The firm also works with companies in the United Kingdom to establish similar technology. Britain intends to replace its nuclear-power production with advanced reactors, as well as expand renewable energy. Like China, it views a non-carbon future as requiring both. China, for its part, has plans for more than 200 reactors as part of its “green energy” movement.

Today, nuclear power provides 60 percent of non-carbon power in the U.S. but is threatened by bad economics. The “bad” relates not to nuclear power itself but to federal and state market decisions. These strongly support renewables for being non-carbon, nonpolluting and producers of new jobs, but they fail to extend such support to nuclear power, which offers even more of the same advantages.

Meanwhile, deregulation favors natural gas, a carbon source, in oversupply from the fracking boom. An old question might deserve new attention, that is, should electricity be considered a commodity like any other, or is it too important to be left to the market?

Proliferation is often cited today as a deep issue. Doesn’t plutonium constitute an existential threat, via terrorists? But nations also store deadly chemicals in huge volumes, capable of inflicting extensive injury and death, as well as chemical and biological weapons. We fear nuclear weapons greatly, and rightly so. But somehow this fear blots out other mass threats more accessible to those with ill intent.

Belief that plutonium, whose global volume would fit a three-car garage, cannot be safeguarded is absurd. The greatest danger regarding fissile material comes when a nuclear state like the Soviet Union collapses, and the fate of weapons and such material falls into uncertainty. Thanks to U.S. and Russian scientists, and to heroic bipartisan action by former U.S. Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Georgia, and Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, this did not result in disaster. The plutonium situation does not approach this. What would a nuclear startup engineer say? Store it safely, then burn it in a next-generation reactor.

The essential point is this: With or without the U.S., nuclear power will grow worldwide. Many hundreds of new reactors will be built. The U.S. can be part of this and help guide it, retaining leadership in nuclear technology and nonproliferation long-term. Or it can let its reactors go cold, one at a time, ceding place to other nations with different priorities. Such would mark withdrawal from global leadership in yet another essential area, a move in tune with our current administration. We are at a key moment in history for this choice. Let us choose well.