Despite Japan’s decision to back away from nuclear technology after Fukushima, the global outlook for nuclear power is bright. Seventy-three large nuclear power plants are being built around the world, and another 450 are planned or proposed, each reactor a source of zero-carbon energy.
Although only five reactors are under construction in the United States, a potentially huge international market in nuclear components and equipment is opening up for U.S. suppliers — including a number of companies in New England.
The global market is larger than one would think, if you add on the world’s 435 operating nuclear plants, which need new equipment ranging from pipes and pumps to fuel rods. The Department of Commerce estimates the total market to be $500 billion to $740 billion over the next decade.
If the United States were to win a quarter of that business, it would create or sustain as many as 185,000 American jobs and generate billions of dollars in revenue, the Nuclear Energy Institute says. And many of the hundreds of U.S. suppliers would be able to stay in business until orders pick up for more nuclear plants in this country.
And more nuclear plants will be built. Even with modest economic growth, the Energy Information Administration projects the United States will need about 340,000 megawatts of new generating capacity by 2040 — the equivalent of 340 large power plants. Much of the additional generating capacity will need to come from clean energy sources like nuclear power that do not pollute the air or load the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
But right now there’s a problem with nuclear export licensing that must be resolved. U.S. companies are at a disadvantage in competing with firms from other nuclear countries, such as France, Canada, China, Russia and South Korea. Companies in those countries are usually able to obtain a nuclear export license in less than a month, whereas in the United States it can take a year or longer.
Overlapping government regulation and bureaucratic red tape are largely to blame, making matters increasingly difficult for U.S. exporters who need the international business. In other countries, a single agency handles nuclear sales. But in the United States three departments — Energy, Commerce and State — plus the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must approve each sale. Each department has its own set of rules and priorities. Such overregulation is nonsensical.
Without a policy that fosters the export of U.S. nuclear technology and equipment, the United States is likely to get knocked out of the world market in nuclear hardware, and that could result in the loss of billions of dollars in sales, a loss of U.S. technological expertise and a further erosion in our country’s balance of trade. What’s more, a loss of international nuclear business could mean the United States will wind up on the sidelines, no longer able to play a leadership role in matters involving nuclear safety and nonproliferation.
The situation is so serious that several prominent national security experts — former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and William Cohen and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and James Jones, among others — recently asked President Obama to intervene. The group urged the president to make the streamlining of the nuclear-export licensing process “a top priority.” In a letter, they said the government should find ways to enhance the competitiveness of American suppliers of nuclear technology, while doing what it can to influence global safeguards on nonproliferation and nuclear safety. And they urged the government to recognize the new realities of a globalized and interconnected network of nuclear suppliers.
The United States needs to capture a greater share of the nuclear technologies market — and our companies are poised to do that. But nothing can happen without first getting the government to foster nuclear exports and speed up licensing.
Bob N. Leach is a retired radiation protection manager and certified senior reactor operator. He lives in Brattleboro.MORE IN Perspective
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