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The US wants to restore American nuclear energy leadership

The US Secretary of Energy, Dan Brouillette, announced a comprehensive Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership prepared by the Nuclear Fuel Working Group (NFWG), which was established by President Donald Trump last year to undertake a fuller analysis of national security considerations with respect to the entire nuclear fuel supply chain. The report sends an important message to Central-Eastern European countries as well.

The strategy outlines potential actions that could enhance the positive attributes of nuclear power, revive capabilities of the uranium mining, milling and conversion industries, strengthen the US technology supremacy and drive US exports while assuring consistency with non-proliferation objectives and supporting national security.

“The decline of the US industrial base in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle over the past few decades has threatened our national interest and national security,” said Mr Brouillette.

He pointed out that the Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership recognises this challenge and lays out an array of policy options to restore America’s leadership in nuclear energy and technology.

“As a matter of national security, it is critical that we take bold steps to preserve and grow the entire US nuclear energy enterprise,” he continued. “The Trump Administration is committed to regaining our competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy.”

The NFWG developed a number of policy options across the entire nuclear fuel supply chain to revitalise the US nuclear energy industry, inter alia, the utilisation of American technological innovation and increased nuclear R&D investments to consolidate technical advances and strengthen American leadership in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies. The report recommends taking a whole-of-government approach to supporting the US nuclear energy industry in exporting civil nuclear technology in competition with state-owned enterprises.

The US Nuclear Fuel Working Group makes specific reference to a growing number of Eastern European countries that appear to be moving towards cooperation with state-owned Russian, and to a lesser extent Chinese, competitors when choosing to pursue nuclear power.

“Establishment of nuclear infrastructure incorporates large scale cross-cutting economic, security and geopolitical relationships between the purchasing nation and the technology providing nation for the ensuing 100 years,” states the report. “Abdicating American leadership in the international competition for nuclear influence through neglect of this industry has empowered Russia and China to establish long-term relationships with nations, inimical to US national interests. This includes a NATO ally and multiple nations that hold high strategic geopolitical importance.”

The report resonates with the mounting concerns regarding the infiltration of Russian interest in the CEE region’s nuclear industry. Russia identified these emerging nuclear markets of Central Eastern Europe as new opportunities to export its nuclear technologies and entered into a contractual agreement with many counties in the region.

Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom was commissioned with the expansion project of the Hungarian Paks nuclear power plant and building the Hanhikivi nuclear power plant in Finland. This year Rosatom won the contract for modernising Bulgaria’s Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant and tries to increase its position on the Czech nuclear market by competing to add a fifth nuclear reactor to the Dukovany nuclear power plant. In the EU, five Member States operate Russian reactors, four VVER-1000s and 14 VVER-440s, in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia. They currently all receive fuel supplies from Russian fuel company Tvel.

Although many CEE countries opted for Russian nuclear technology others partnered up with US companies. Poland and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding on civilian nuclear energy cooperation in June 2019. And, in October 2019, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) announced that it had signed an agreement with Polish Synthos SA, to build a 300 megawatts Small Modular Reactor (SMR) in Poland, based on the premise that GE would license its SMR design in North America by 2024 and be able to build the unit in Poland in 2027.

The US nuclear technology export plan may be important for the implementation of the Polish Nuclear Power Program. Poland declares that it wants to build 6-9 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear energy by 2040. The government is holding talks with several potential partners for the investment, with the expectation that a foreign partner would hold a significant stake as well as supplying the reactor technology.

The NFWG report recognises that US national security is truly integrated with the health of the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle and identifies a strong civil nuclear industry as an enabler of national defence.

“The credibility of the US non-proliferation regime depends upon the viability and the health of a robust civilian nuclear energy industry and technology leadership position, including the world-leading standard embodied by the U.S. nuclear safety regulatory structures,” reads the report.

As an initial and important step, the President’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for the Department of Energy includes 150 million US dollars to stand up a domestic Uranium Reserve. It will begin with the purchase of uranium from US mines and of US conversion services.

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