- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2011

As developing nations begin building dozens of nu- clear reactors to meet growing energy demands, the United States is on the verge of losing its leadership in one nuclear segment that will weaken our national security: our ability to provide energy and our capacity to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons.

Right now, approximately 60 nuclear reactors are under construction around the world, many of them in developing countries. China plans to grow from 9 gigawatts to as much as 200 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2030, and the Gulf Cooperation Council is weighing growing from zero to 50 gigawatts over the same time period. That growth comes on top of the 104 reactors that provide about 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs and the 329 reactors currently operating in other parts of the world.

Those plants will need fuel made using uranium-enrichment technology, the same basic process that makes weapons-grade uranium. The ability of this technology to produce fuel for power plants as well as weapons is why it is closely guarded and why it becomes a major problem when it ends up in the hands of nations such as North Korea and Iran.

The United States has argued that emerging nuclear nations should forgo their own enrichment programs in exchange for an assured U.S. supply of enriched uranium to fuel their nuclear power plants. That is possible because the U.S. has maintained its own domestic sources of enriched uranium production for almost 60 years. While the one remaining U.S. enrichment plant operates at the end of its useful life, guzzling as much electricity every day as the state of Maine, the Europeans have moved to modern, energy-efficient centrifuge-based enrichment technology. One European facility already is operating in the United States, and another is proposed. Those plants are foreign-government owned and based on non-U.S. technologies.

Once the last U.S.-owned enrichment plant closes, our country for the first time will find itself completely dependent on foreign-controlled sources for all of its nuclear fuel. That will make 20 percent of U.S. electricity reliant on foreign sources of fuel, will rob the United States of its standing to provide an assured supply of enriched uranium to developing countries to fill their power needs, and will raise the odds of emerging nuclear countries seeking their own enrichment capacity.

The national security issues tied to the loss of U.S. domestic enrichment capability go beyond proliferation concerns, extending to the reliable operation of our own nuclear deterrent. Of immediate concern is our need to produce domestically a component essential to the working of certain weapons in our nation’s nuclear arsenal that deteriorates with time and therefore must be replenished periodically. The U.S. government has not produced any such material on its own since 1988 and instead has relied on reactors operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to produce it.

Because of peaceful-use restrictions on foreign enrichment technologies, the fuel for the TVA reactors must come from a U.S. source. Once the lone U.S.-owned enrichment plant closes, the nation will lack the domestic source needed to maintain the effectiveness of a substantial part of America’s deterrent nuclear force.

With energy and national security ranking high on our nation’s list of national priorities, it would be folly for the United States to back itself into such a corner.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The United States possesses its own centrifuge technology - developed and demonstrated by the Department of Energy in the 1980s and resurrected about 10 years ago by USEC Inc., a part of the Department of Energy privatized during the Clinton administration.

USEC has invested about $2 billion in upgrading the U.S. centrifuge technology using state-of-the-art materials and control systems so that the American Centrifuge, as it is called, has nearly eight times the output per centrifuge of the European technology while consuming 95 percent less electricity than the old U.S. enrichment technology. USEC seeks to install these centrifuges at a ready-made facility in rural southern Ohio, along the way creating nearly 8,000 jobs.

The Department of Energy and USEC have determined that the best path forward for commercializing the American Centrifuge technology is a cost-shared demonstration program to further reduce the technical project execution and financial risks by demonstrating and verifying key systems as they actually would operate at the scale necessary for full commercialization. Unfortunately, this demonstration program has become caught up in the federal budget quagmire. Unless this impasse is resolved soon, the project faces potential demobilization, and our nation faces the loss of this critical technology.

The American Centrifuge, like all development projects, has faced its share of technical and financial challenges, but it has accumulated hundreds of thousands of machine run-time hours, met key performance objectives for production and plant reliability, and generally enjoyed bipartisan support.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States has pioneered the peaceful use of atoms to light and heat the world while it has kept the peace through the power of a nuclear deterrent. Now, with the potential sunset of domestic nuclear fuel production, both of those principles are at risk.

Norman Augustine is the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. and was a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.