America's Missed Nuclear Energy Opportunity

November 19, 2013 Topic: EnergySecurity Region: United States

America's Missed Nuclear Energy Opportunity

The U.S. nuclear industry is losing ground to foreign competitors—and it doesn't have to.

Increasing global power demand—coupled with high natural gas prices in Asia and Europe for electricity generation, and the alarmist climate change narrative—make the right energy generation balance a national priority for developed and developing countries. France and Russia—the current market leaders in nuclear-power-plant construction—are taking full advantage of this market demand.

France is a global leader in nuclear power generation. The world’s largest nuclear power operator, EDF Energy, together with Areva, provide great competitive leverage. The extent of Areva’s involvement worldwide is unprecedented; the company has participated in construction and maintenance of 360 reactors out of the total 440 globally. High security and safety standards and highly educated experts are the hallmark of French projects, but the prices are higher than Russia’s. Most recently, EDF and Areva signed an agreement to build two reactors in the UK totaling $26-billion, the first in Europe since the disaster at Fukushima.

Russia’s state-owned Rosatom currently has contracts to build 19 nuclear reactors worldwide. In October, Rosatom and Atomstroyexport signed a contract to build a $10 billion nuclear power plant in Jordan.

Rosatom will also build and operate Turkey’s first nuclear facility—a massive four-reactor plant expected to cost $20 to $25 billion. It will serve as the pilot project for the company’s new “build-own-operate” model.

The success can be at least partially credited to the Kremlin’s political and financial support of its nuclear flagship. Moscow allocated $32 billion over a two-year period to finance Rosatom’s expansion. Access to this cheap, long-term financing gives the Russian nuclear behemoth an unfair advantage over competing firms.

A thriving nuclear industry, including a modern nuclear arsenal, is a part of Soviet/Russian industrial history and national strategy.

Furthermore, only Rosatom and France’s Areva are full-service providers, including construction, fuel, waste management, and decommissioning. Unfortunately, due to U.S. government policy failures, American companies do not compete globally in nuclear waste management.

Ernst & Young’s 2012 nuclear industry “benchmarking” report notes:

Russia is highly recognized for its nuclear disaster expertise and for the safety of its technology. In 2011, Russia won twice as many bids to construct nuclear plants abroad as it did the previous year and aims to maintain a leading position in the international market.

Rosatom expects to sign contracts for up to 80 reactors in the coming years.

While Russian and French companies are enjoying the nuclear power spotlight, their American competitors are struggling to keep a place in the sun. Even though the U.S. is still the largest producer of nuclear power in the world, it’s only just coming off a more than thirty year hiatus to new reactor construction.

Economic reality, driven by the shale gas boom, overregulation, a paralytic spent-fuel management system, and negative publicity surrounding events such as Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, makes the American nuclear revival an uphill battle.

Jack Spencer, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies summarized the situation thusly:

Nuclear power has many advantages over other power sources, but a global expansion of peaceful nuclear technology could present risks if not managed properly. While acting to mitigate these risks, U.S. policy should, as in other sectors, include pro-market regulatory reforms, foster competition, and avoid unnecessary intervention.

Internationally, Westinghouse—the American nuclear power leader that is now owned by Toshiba (87%), Kazatomprom (10%) and IHI (3%)—has been able to secure several contracts. But some have been mixed blessings. For example, a 2007 deal with China worth $8 billion was contingent upon transfer of Westinghouse’s AP1000 technology and plagued with delays and cost increases and controversy. By agreeing to these terms, Westinghouse restricted its long-term role in the development of the largest nuclear market in the world, while nurturing the creation of an up-and-coming global competitor.

It comes as no surprise that the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has introduced the Advanced China Pressurized reactor (ACP)-1000, which will be sold to Pakistan, raising safety and security concerns. One has to hope that the reactors are not like a bad photocopy chain, where the quality gets worse with every “new” version that emerges.

The US has used its political capital in support of bids, to mixed results. Even with the involvement of high-level government officials such as then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, negotiations in places like the Czech Republic haven’t yielded breakthroughs. This is partly because of Westinghouse’s failure to localize its supply chain and shed its “made in China” stigma—things very sensitive in Eastern Europe. They even seem to be losing the nuclear-fuel supply market in the region to the French and the Russians.

Westinghouse has signed a preliminary agreement with India, but the future of that project is uncertain. This is mainly due to the clause in the Indian Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act and rules which allow the supplier of a reactor to be held liable in case of an incident.

Meanwhile, here in America, progress is painfully slow. While the 2005 Energy Policy Act provided subsidies for a limited number of reactors, it did nothing to address the underlying political and regulatory barriers confronting the nuclear industry. The five new reactors that are currently under construction will be the first to be permitted since 1978—but no additional projects in the pipeline are on the path to success.

Low natural-gas prices, together with the Obama Administration’s policy of subsidizing green energy not only put additional competitive pressure on the domestic nuclear market, they also limit the incentives for American companies to invest in nuclear R&D.

The U.S. government should address the nuclear renaissance, allow new technology, such as small nuclear reactors, to develop, and resolve a myriad of storage and regulatory problems that stifle the industry.

With Russia, France, and new vendors—such as South Korea and China—now entering the market, competition in the civilian nuclear-reactor industry is getting tougher.

The Obama administration recognized the importance of nuclear energy in reducing CO2 emissions, yet did little to allow American companies to compete.

We cannot expect Washington to make the nuclear industry a national strategic priority the way Moscow or Paris did, but America needs the federal government to recognize the importance of the nuclear renaissance in the years and decades to come, and to cooperate with the industry to make it a reality.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.