China and the Importance of Civil Nuclear Energy

China and the Importance of Civil Nuclear Energy

An allied partnership around civilian nuclear power would constitute a strategically important move on the geopolitical chessboard to counter China and Russia.


Despite the long lead in agricultural technologies provided by America to feed billions of people in emerging economies, reliable electricity is now the most urgent need in these regions. And with the additional constraint of meeting global climate objectives, nuclear power currently provides the only realistic solution for meeting the predictable demand for baseload electricity facing our planet, while concurrently addressing emissions at the global scale. Today state-owned enterprises (SOEs), heavily subsidized entities from Russia and China, are capitalizing on this demand for nuclear power, creating alliances in parts of the world that will shape geopolitics for the next sixty to one hundred years—the life of these plants, including decommissioning. Tragically, over the past forty years, the United States has allowed its civilian nuclear construction capacity to atrophy, rendering its private enterprises unable to compete one-on-one with the nuclear SOEs of China and Russia. Of fifty-four nuclear projects currently underway, America is leading only one.

These realities—emerging Chinese-Russian collaborations and mounting centrifugal issues in the United States and allied countries—are daunting. The need for U.S. and UK leadership, and multinational coordination toward forging public-private partnerships is urgent. As such, the question should be posed: Does the U.S.-led allied system, particularly the U.S.-uk alliance, have the diplomatic capacity and organizational structure to not only respond to these challenges, but dominate and win the competition?


CIA director William J. Burns contends that the United States will have to update its diplomatic capacity to meet these complex challenges. More systemically, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates contends that in order for the United States to effectively counter China and Russia in the years ahead will require “a dramatic restructuring of the government’s national security apparatus.” While both of these are long-term prospects, existing threats will only multiply if not stanched soon.

Fortunately, opportunities are at hand this year and next to renew or strengthen the kind of strong competitive alliances we will need to compete successfully with China and Russia and meet the challenges of ever-increasing demands for reliable electricity under low-carbon constraints. To wit: the twenty-sixth gathering in November of the Conference of Parties (COP26) to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Scotland offers an opportunity. The countries of the Free World should come together and announce the looming arrival of a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) capable of not only providing abundant baseload power but also meeting industrial applications ranging from desalination to process heat and power for the production of hydrogen for use in hybrid systems. Look for similar meetings among the Three Seas Initiative countries from the Baltic states in the north to the Balkan countries neighboring the Mediterranean.

Each of these meetings presents opportunities for the United States and UK to deepen alliances in energy broadly, and on emissions reductions and nuclear energy specifically. But for us to take advantage of these upcoming meetings between our Department of State and the British Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy must take the initiative with the relevant countries to enable the formation of public-private partnerships starting with NATO, the Five Eyes countries, and the Three Seas Initiative countries. Similarly, we must lead in defining a mandate for the Quad countries (Japan, the United States, India, and Australia). Fortunately, much of this work is already being done in the private sector.

With American and British leadership, a historic opportunity is at hand to restructure the alliance system around twenty-first-century challenges—challenges that are far more complex than their twentieth-century predecessors. By teaming with our G7 allies, our industries can be positioned to lead the execution of the largest infrastructure project in human history, with advanced nuclear power and SMRs in the lead. The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the inherent threat that an authoritarian power such as China will pose for global stability. Its growing dominance in nuclear energy constitutes concerns equivalent to those posed by Huawei and 5G dependence.

HOWEVER, GREAT power threats aren’t unprecedented. When the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik-1, it shook Americans and America’s national security community. The communist USSR had beaten the United States in a high-stakes technology race, and it seemed to call into question whether the United States had the capacity and resolve to not only respond and compete with the USSR, but to outcompete and dominate it on all technology fronts. America didn’t respond merely by complaining about the USSR competing unfairly on the world stage. Rather, America stepped up its commitment to critical technology sectors and created the greatest civilian space exploration program in the world.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. China and Russia are out front of the United States in civilian nuclear power—a science, technology, and engineering sector that has been critical to national security since its beginning. However, the U.S. nuclear power heritage, its “UN P5” status, and its excellence in operations still constitute the best on the planet. U.S. national interests and allied relationships can be advanced by the delivery throughout the world of a critical commodity—safe, clean, and reliable nuclear energy. If we aren’t building the plants and supplying the fuel, another country will—and our influence on safety standards will erode.

Announcing a U.S.-led, allied supported global energy strategy among G7 members, with nuclear power in the lead, will instill confidence in the global community and send signals throughout the $10 trillion global nuclear energy arena that the United States is returning to its important role as the country of choice for the peaceful delivery of clean energy. Further, it will empower the private sector to compete successfully in the international nuclear arena. America’s response to the twenty-first-century threats of China and Russia must be proactive and not dominated by complaints that China and Russia are playing unfairly. Pointing out the threat is necessary, as is calling out China and Russia for illicit and corrupt practices and challenging Americans to respond to the threat. But it must be done in the context of the reality that China and Russia are doing what great powers do—challenging and attempting to displace or disrupt the influence of what they perceive as the hegemon. In terms of geopolitical realism, this is normal behavior.

Such was the case in 1947, when Stimson issued his challenge to Americans regarding the threat of Communist Russia. Stimson was blunt: “The problem of Russia is thus reduced to a question of our own fitness to survive. Our future does not depend on the tattered forecasts of Karl Marx. It depends on us.” Similarly, the threat of China and Russia today is also reduced to a question of our own fitness to survive. And our future does not depend on the SOEs, industrial policies, and five-year plans of authoritarian states seeking to disrupt the liberal world order established by America and its allies.

It depends on us—the United States, the UK, and our allies—leveraging our economic, technological, and diplomatic capacity to restructure our alliances for twenty-first-century challenges. To this end, an allied partnership around nuclear power would constitute a strategically important move on the geopolitical chessboard to counter China and Russia—a move that would generate myriad security benefits for the West and all those hoping to join it.

Robert McFarlane, a career Marine officer, served for nine years at the State Department and White House rising ultimately to become President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor.

David Gattie is an Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Engineering and a Senior Fellow at UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security. Gattie is an unpaid member of the advocacy council for Nuclear Matters. He has provided testimony on energy, climate, and nuclear power policy before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own.

Image: Reuters.