The U.S. nuclear industry will need diplomatic support from its government, as well. Strengthened global nonproliferation advocacy projects to nuclear importers an image of commitment to nuclear security, while more active efforts on behalf of the United States, to settle favorable 123-agreement negotiations with nuclear importers, would help the United States move along in the export process while maintaining the high safety standards that the U.S. industry is known for.
An additional step on the path forward for U.S. nuclear energy exports would be for the United States to enhance its abilities to address problems regarding nuclear waste. U.S. competitors are cutting deals in which they will take care of nuclear waste—this gives them an advantage in the export market, and enhances nuclear security by taking dangerous materials out of the hands of inexperienced states—but the United States is still struggling to find a solution for its nuclear-waste challenge. In addition, in order to strengthen the appeal of its exports, the United States ought to maintain and enhance its edge in nuclear research and commercialization. This effort will require investment in U.S. national laboratories, the private nuclear industry and research universities.
In particular, the United States could capture both a market and a security advantage if it were to continue to invest in reactor designs that are more difficult to use for military purposes. For example, small modular reactors, such as the mPower, NuScale, Westinghouse SMR and Flibe Energy reactors are already in development in the United States (among others). These designs are more resistant to nuclear-weapons proliferation than other power plant designs, since they don’t use weapons-grade fuel, can operate for a long amount of time without refueling, and could be refueled by exporters without the need for domestic fuel supplies and fuel-cycle infrastructure in importing countries. If the United States could capture a larger market share through the use of SMR reactors, that would constitute a significant contribution to global nonproliferation efforts. However, all this will be no easy feat: at the moment, these designs mostly live on paper right now, so it will take both private and public investment to make this strategy viable. Other reactor designs, such as thorium-based reactors, will require even more substantial R&D investments to be cost-effective, but these raise prospects for reducing proliferation risks from nuclear energy even further.
Although there are always challenges with the safe export of nuclear-energy technology, greater U.S. control over the market would be beneficial for nonproliferation. When viewed in conjunction with the domestic economic benefits, it is clear that, although it will not be an easy road, there is a compelling argument in favor of the revitalization of the U.S. nuclear energy industry and its export capabilities.
Lauren Sukin is a Ph.D. student in political science at Stanford University.