Amid conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the buildout of a robust nuclear fuel supply chain has heightened ramifications for U.S. national security, perhaps most obviously by alleviating our reliance on Russian uranium.
In addition to mitigating dependence on Russia, a strong nuclear fuel sector supports national security in myriad ways: advancing global nonproliferation by enhancing international confidence in reliable fuel supply; strengthening American leadership and competitiveness in the global nuclear energy market, particularly against China and Russia; and serving as a potential source of material for defense applications critical to maintaining the readiness of U.S. strategic deterrence capabilities.
Individually, these benefits are certainly relevant and important to U.S. national security. But collectively, they all reinforce U.S. leverage in upholding the highest international standards in nuclear security and nonproliferation, including establishing norms and practices to constrain the spread of sensitive technologies and the means to produce weapons-usable material.
A Perception Issue
For decades, the United States was the dominant supplier of nuclear fuel services to the world, and the global nuclear fuel market appeared to function reliably. It is for perhaps this reason that American leaders lost sight of the national security stakes at hand and allowed the nuclear fuel industry to languish. In the 1990s, the United States gradually lost its share in the global enrichment market to overseas competitors, including Russia. When Putin launched his unprovoked attack on Ukraine in 2022, our deep dependence on Russian nuclear fuel suddenly and dramatically became untenable.
While some lawmakers clearly understand the geostrategic significance of this issue—including those who introduced the Nuclear Fuel Security Act (NFSA) back in February—many operate under the misconception that nuclear fuel is simply a commercial matter, leading some to question whether nuclear fuel provisions or funding belong in national security legislation.
For example, there are conversations in Congress about including funding for federal nuclear fuel programs in a national security supplemental bill, a vehicle that would likely include aid packages for Ukraine and Israel. Given longstanding misperceptions about nuclear fuel, some may view funding for federal fuel programs as outside the purview of a national security supplemental or even a distraction from its overall aims.
Nuclear Fuel and National Security: Implications for Ukraine and the Middle East
However, our current commitments in Ukraine and the Middle East clearly highlight and illustrate the complex interconnections between nuclear fuel and national security. The national security imperatives of nuclear fuel are closely aligned with the United States’ objectives in these crises, and rebuilding our nuclear fuel infrastructure is complementary—even essential—to our strategies for stabilizing these conflicts.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine voluntarily relinquished the nuclear arsenal that had been deployed within its territory during the Soviet era. Ukraine then immediately acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994.
Therefore, a failure to come to Ukraine’s aid at this moment would send negative, reverberating signals to our friends and allies across the world and foment doubts about the prudence of adhering to global nonproliferation norms. The world’s pervasive dependence on Russian energy, including nuclear fuel, is no longer acceptable, considering that it undermines our collective resolve to support Ukraine against Russian aggression (and directly bolsters Putin’s military and arms complex).
Geopolitical instability in the Middle East is long-established and well-documented, and thus, worries about the threat of nuclear proliferation in the region have persisted for decades. Recent terrorist acts and humanitarian crises have further underscored the imperative of effectively managing regional proliferation risks.
And as more countries in the region express interest in starting civil nuclear programs—including Saudi Arabia and Jordan—U.S. leadership in maintaining robust international nonproliferation standards only grows in importance.
Constraining the spread of technologies that can produce weapons-usable material has long been a major U.S. policy priority. In 2009, the U.S. concluded a “123” Agreement with the UAE, in which Abu Dhabi formally renounced its rights to sensitive enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies.
While some lauded this ENR provision in the agreement as a major nonproliferation win for the United States and advocated for enshrining it as the “gold standard” for all subsequent 123 Agreements, Washington does not have a successful track record in negotiating such concessions from its civil nuclear partners since the UAE.
In general, we stand a far greater chance of achieving such nonproliferation conditions with more robust capabilities and measures to ensure a reliable and international fuel supply. More effectively providing countries with nuclear fuel supply is the fundamental step to disincentivizing the development of sensitive fuel cycle technologies and advancing U.S. nonproliferation goals.
Moreover, considering that Russia makes formal commitments to supply fuel for the life of the reactors it exports to client states—as part of comprehensive packages including training, financing, and other concessions—nuclear fuel supply is also an issue of commercial competitiveness. China is rapidly building out its own nuclear fuel supply chain and will be in a position to make comparable offers to international customers in the future. And as our international competitiveness lags behind, our nonproliferation leverage will erode even further.
Regional turmoil and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing push to start its civil nuclear program (including ambitions to develop uranium enrichment) have increased the urgency of addressing these policy challenges. With Saudi Arabia allegedly using possible civil nuclear cooperation with China to push Washington to relent on its enrichment demands, U.S. negotiating leverage and commercial presence in the region are increasingly crucial—and nuclear fuel critically supports both.
Nuclear Power Needs U.S. Leadership
Uranium is produced, traded, and sold like many other commodities. Still, it is no exaggeration that the geopolitical ramifications of nuclear fuel are perhaps greater than any other commercial good in world history.
A robust and globally competitive U.S. civil nuclear sector is not just a commercial issue but has immense consequences for U.S. national security. Nuclear fuel lies squarely at the nexus of American climate, energy, commercial, geopolitical, and national security interests.
At this momentous historical juncture, the United States must rise to the occasion and rebuild its nuclear fuel capabilities for the sake of both our longer-term security and the pressing national security challenges of today.
Alan Ahn is Deputy Director for Nuclear at Third Way. Any views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Third Way and its partners and affiliates.