How America Can Dominate Global Nuclear Energy

Time to rebuild the declining U.S. nuclear industry.

Today, the U.S. nuclear export industry is in decline. While the international nuclear export industry has grown over the past few years, U.S. exports have remained markedly flat. Declining competitiveness as other exporters master nuclear-power technology is a key component of the emerging market shift, but a lack of government support for the U.S. nuclear industry compared to the other exporting nations (Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, France and Canada) constitutes the central problem. For example, the United States’ high degree of regulation on its nuclear industry, difficulties for the United States in securing adequate cooperation agreements with importing partners, a lack of public funding for nuclear energy projects, waning research and development budgets, and partisan conflicts that have undermined a nuclear waste solution all hinder the U.S. nuclear energy industry—and all could be solved by improved federal policies.

The U.S. government’s heavy regulations and comparative lack of investment in the industry mean that U.S. projects tend to be slow-moving—leading nuclear energy importers to turn to other nuclear technology exporters, like Russia, whose governments have adopted more industry-favorable outlooks than the United States. While the main problem for the U.S. nuclear industry lies with exports, the domestic industry has also declined in recent decades. Even though billions have been put into designing and funding new domestic plants as well as rebooting old ones, no new plants have opened in the United States in the twenty-first century. In total, the United States is currently working on five projects, all of which have seen major delays. The Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee serves as the most cautionary tale—although the plant is now almost complete, a series of government flip-flops on the project has caused construction so far to take a whopping forty-three years. The story serves as a reminder of just what’s wrong with the U.S. industry. It takes not just government approval, but also sustained and robust commitment, to see through such an intensive project as the construction of a nuclear plant.

Despite some worrisome conditions, however, the U.S. nuclear industry does still have its advantages. A long history of experience in the nuclear sector, widely available human and financial capital, proven plant designs, and rebounding public support for nuclear energy all suggest that the industry doesn’t have a fork in it yet—even though some federal officials might appear to prefer it that way.

If the industry can rebound, it will have the opportunity to seize meaningful influence in the nuclear energy exports market, for although it seems to be falling behind now, its competitors face critical obstacles as well. Russia’s industry is massively overstretched, suffers from corruption and has regularly seen the actual cost of its projects far exceed proposed costs; the South Korean nuclear industry is still battling the effects of a recent bout of corruption and many of its designs stem from U.S. companies, making it difficult for the nation to engage in independent exporting projects; China’s industry has been scrutinized for its safety protocols, and it lacks both exporting experience and government interest in expanding nuclear exports; France’s nuclear exporting companies have fallen on hard economic times and have begun scaling down; Japan's industry faces domestic opposition over exports and is still focused on rebuilding after the Fukushima fallout; while the Canadian nuclear export industry remains comparatively small. And that’s all. Without a lot of competitors, and with all of them suffering serious challenges of their own, the United States is facing an opportunity to seize market share before its competitors can rebound from their current problems.